Of all the genres the independent film can fail at, the thriller has to be high on the list. Only comedy causes more problems for the outsider auteur. The reason for such difficulty is inherent in the cinematic category itself. So many aspects of the suspense story must be done correctly, handled with a deft detail for character and circumstance that if any of these necessary elements implode, or fail to deliver, your entire production plods and then dies. Alfred Hitchcock, the true master of this format, made the case very clearly – we must care about the people in peril or, instead of suspense, we get stupidity. Thus is the fate that befalls Cassandra Nicoladu's attempted angst fest, Show Me. Striving to be a Lady in a Cage like saga of vandals violating a career gal's private space, what we end up with is an endless exercise in tedium. The only dread we experience is the feeling that this forced flop will never end.
It's her tenth anniversary and Sarah is anxious to get out of Toronto and out to her isolated country cabin. She has a wonderful celebration planned for her partner Sam, and she hopes her better half can put down the business for a while and make it to the party. Locked in downtown gridlock traffic, she runs into a couple of squeegee kids – Jenna and Jackson – and before she knows it, she's being carjacked. The duo demands money and to be taken out of the city. Naturally, they all wind up at the cabin. Sarah is tied up while Jenna and Jackson decide what to do with her. Eventually, a plan is formulated. They will drain their victim's bank account and make their escape. But there is something about Sarah that disturbs them both. Jackson finds himself attracted to her, while Jenna envisions her as the dead mother she desperately craves. Suddenly, secrets both sad and sinister are revealed, and what started out as a simple robbery turns taxing, then tragic. Eventually, telling truths are discovered, and the line between abductor and abductee is blurred, and then banished forever.
Perhaps the very definition of a 'good news/bad news' film, Show Me starts off with a very promising premise. A couple of street kids kidnap a yuppie businesswoman and make her drive off to her out of the way cabin in the woods. As with most thrillers that put ordinary people in harm's way, the suspenseful story component kicks in almost automatically. Our pulse quickens as we ponder why these youths have taken such drastic steps (there are lots of subliminal cues that something sinister is afoot) and our mind quickly races to how our hero (or, in this case, heroine) will get out of the jam they are in. And since it's professionally shot, cinematically interesting and more than competently acted, we anticipate a great deal of cat and mouse fun. Unfortunately, the bad has to make itself known somewhere amongst all the positives, and it usually comes the minute any character opens their mouth. The fact of the matter is that Show Me is so shoddy in its scripting, so unclear and ambiguous in its individual motivations and so close mouthed in its meaning that we end up hating every single minute we spend with the cast. We stop identifying with anyone onscreen, get lost in our own sense of entertainment ennui and use the final 45 minutes praying that Eli Roth takes over the directing and goes Cabin Fever on everyone involved.
Writer/director Cassandra Nicoladu has no one to blame but herself. She provides no context for our crime, no reason for these otherwise superficial squeegee kids to engage in the criminal acts they are attempting. As the narrative progresses, she drops little clues that our pair has the potential for great violence, and that death has darkened their door on, maybe, more than one occasion. But as the façade of menace fades and the rambling truth unfolds (lost parents, psychological issues, awkward adoptions) we begin to see Jenna and Jackson as jokes. It's not that actors Katharine Isabelle and Kett Turton are bad, they just don't have anything insightful to offer. Each one meanders through this mess perusing the walls in hopes that some manner of personality perception has been placed there. Turton's Jackson swims a lot, for no apparent reason. His sister cuts herself for, again, undisclosed rationales. Nicoladu spends so much time on sweeping vistas and meaningless musical moments (always a sign of a lack of true depth) that the purpose behind the film gets lost. What once was a taut rollercoaster ride of discernible dread slips off into a self-indulgent character study, and as stated before, we don't know enough about these people to care for their internalized concerns.
But perhaps the weakest link here is leading lady Michelle Nolden. As Sarah, the disgruntled yuppie with a secret, we have literally nothing to root for. Part of the problem, again, is Nicoladu's script. Sarah is supposed to be smart, cunning, clever, manipulative and just a little bit jaded over her souring love life. But as realized by Nolden, Sarah is a void, a shallow shell never once using any of the skills she owns to deliver herself from danger. Indeed, we get the distinct impression that Sarah likes what is happening to her. She enjoys the role of victim so much that we never once feel her sense of empathy or empowerment at the hands of these hoodlums. During the course of the film, as her secret is eventually revealed and then quickly relegated to the back burner, we wonder how she will deal with all the dementia around her. The answer is quite simple – she enables it, then goes about her merry way. In what is perhaps the most callous conceit in the entire film, Sarah condones murder, incest, self-mutilation and statutory rape, all in the name of some pointless preoccupation with her partner. Without a monologue explaining her approach, leaving the audience with just a mixed-up maxim about the world being divided into rescuers and rescuees, the story stumbles over itself, rendering its foundation unreasonable, and the conclusions to be cloying. Indeed, almost all of Show Me is an epiphany waiting for an explanation. Sadly, we don't care about either.
It has to be said that, for a low budget Canadian production, Show Me looks pretty good. There are some obvious attempts to hide the winter hinterland look of the locale (anytime we visit the lakeside, the digital paintbox makes its presence known) and Nicoladu's framing and composition offer a few rare moments of aesthetic pleasure. Yet this is not really a situation of style over substance. A better description would be suggestion over sincerity. You know that Nicoladu is trying for some real emotion here. She wants us to see these desperate kids with their flailing foster home past and have us immediately connected with their confusion. Similarly, we are supposed to see Sarah as a vulnerable vessel, so hungry for human companionship that she'd willingly toss aside her entire life to protect and nurture her newfound "kids". The final ten minutes feel like they've been airlifted from another movie, and all the swimming suggests that water will play a part in the denouement as well. So Nicoladu is not delivering anything truly unique with her attempted suspenseful story. She's so busy either giving everything away, or keeping far too much isolated and insular that we stop caring and pray for a passable pay off. It never arrives.
As stated before, Show Me looks very professional. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is colorful and rich with detail. There are some interesting lighting choices in the film, moments where the shadows are lengthened to make our actors appear almost otherworldly. The Canadian countryside looks resplendent, yet rugged, and the overwhelming vibe is one of big, not low budget, production.
Offered in Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, the soundtrack mixing for Show Me is uniformly excellent. Though an atmosphere of dread is definitely missing, a minor mood of loneliness and loss are consistently communicated. The dialogue is easily discernible and the conversations are always clear. The musical scoring is subtle, and the use of actual songs rather routine. For an attempt at a crackerjack thriller, the aural aspects of this film are very subdued.
Wolfe Video does a decent job of fleshing out this film with some interesting added content. The bonus features on the DVD include a couple of deleted scenes (more of Sarah's home movies from her many anniversaries), a few trailers, a behind the scenes featurette, and a full length audio commentary from writer/director Nicoladu. The Making-of focuses on a single day in the production (Sarah's first escape attempt while at the cabin) and interviews with the cast and crew are included, intercut in between the action. We are offered a clear picture of how independent movies are made in the Great White North. As for the commentary, Nicoladu is gracious and genial during her alternate track, describing her career arc and the inspiration for the film in a direct, determined manner. We learn storyline secrets (nothing major or really revealing) and experience adulation and praise that may or may not be warranted. This filmmaker obviously feels that her film is not flawed, yet understands how financial issues limited her true vision. Overall, this is a fairly decent cross-section of extras for an incredibly routine movie.
Easily dismissible as a certifiable 'Skip It' sort of entertainment, this critic recognizes that there will be those who, without much groundwork in the thriller, will fall instantly into the frame of mind this movie is manufacturing, and follow it along to what they consider to be a brazen, bitter end. As a result of such possible preferences, Show Me warrants a Rent It on the DVD Talk recommendation scales. Such a minimal cash outlay will be the true basis for whether you enjoy this stunted suspense story of not. Though it's really nothing more than a Lifetime Movie given a post-millennial sheen of suggested substance and grandeur, this is the kind of film that will trick more than a few filmgoers. They will think they are getting a smart throwback to the days when the potboiler ruled the cinematic roost. What they fail to recognize is that Cassandra Nicoladu has nothing to add to the genre, and had no real ability to handle the filmic category in the first place. Show Me suggests a director with a decent handle on the basic elements of moviemaking, But as an attempt to chill the nerves or tingle the spine, her efforts fail over and over again.
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