Due to her recent pop-culture stumbles with the likes of Twilight and Red Riding Hood, it's easy to forget that Catherine Hardwicke once directed a pair of semi-effective dramas, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, about defiance, skirting the law, and alternative subcultures. While neither are flawless, they discover a pulse within their topics that find relevant ways of expressing themselves, far away from the messy metaphors and love triangles of her fantasy-horror outings. At first blush, it appears as if her latest film, Plush, might steer her perspective back in the right direction, focusing on a rock-star wife and mother who taps into her darker side to explore her creativity, while also handling the pressure of an obsessive fan's adoration. Unfortunately, what takes center stage here is an eyeliner-adorned thriller that's both insipid and peculiar in equal measure, trying too hard to wallow in its edgy brooding as it descends into unpleasant thrills.
Following the loss of her brother and band's guitarist due to a drug overdose, popular singer/songwriter Hayley (Emily Browning) attempts to throw herself into her creativity to cope with the grief. Feeling detached from her children and journalist husband, Carter (Cam Gigandet), she tries to work out her despondent attitude by writing an album that's mostly dedicated to her brother, meeting a less than stellar reception while fending off the pursuits of a stalker-ish fan. Desperate for relief, she finds herself drawn to her new guitarist, Enzo (Xavier Samuel), a black-clad, gloomy guy with a look that reminds Hayley a bit of her brother. A dangerous relationship forms between them as they're on tour, mostly hinged on Hayley's need for a release, where Enzo's attention -- involving a little roughness and light bondage -- teeters on the darker side of things. Hayley doesn't realize that she's playing with fire this hot, though, until his attachment to her transforms into fixation.
At first, Plush plays out more like the soft-core exploitation drama you might find on late-night cable instead of an adequate character examination, seeming as if the film intentionally meanders until another opportunity arises to witness its surprisingly lurid alt-lifestyle hookups. Lengthy, uninspired scenes of Hayley's band performing on-stage commingle with rigid displays of her visceral attempts to cope with creative blockage, while the drama back home with her twin boys and handsome husband establish little emotional connection beyond those lingering responsibilities that might later result in guilt. Oddly, the most genuinely expressive thing to come out of Plush is a movie-within-a-movie: an abstract, provocative music video showcasing Hayley's transformation since her brother's death, which conveys how the film would like for its audience to view the young rocker's conflicted mind. Hardwicke gets that point across about turmoil and rediscovery, but it's not convincing.
Presenting little more than an dull younger starlet who seems reckless and out of her depth, Emily Browning flimsily encapsulates that creative frustration plaguing Hayley's psyche. Despite the soul-searching premise revolving around an artist's bleak inner turmoil and struggle to cope with the digital era's stream of instant feedback, Browning shows a surprising lack of versatility in her head-space, bested by her similarly tormented performances in Sleeping Beauty or even Sucker Punch. The most credible scenes, awkwardly enough, are the ones oozing with sensuality, where the trim, chiseled, goth-inspired Enzo provokes her senses in ways that seem intentionally designed to satisfy some of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" crowd. Xavier Samuel contributes a peculiar intensity into Enzo's aura as he menacingly seduces Hayley, escalating with her continued receptiveness, while his discomfiting rapport with Cam Gigandet's sturdy-enough portrayal of Hayley's husband might raise a few eyebrows.
It doesn't really matter whether Plush would prefer for those watching to seriously consider its twisted domestic drama and examination of the creative process once its darker inclinations take over, transforming into a full-blown, schlocky thriller hinged on obsession born of warped psychosis. Superfluous shock-value plot developments layer atop one another as Hayley sinks deeper into the hole she's innocently dug for herself, riding a downward spiral involving pregnancy, murder, and the contrived discoveries of mysteries surrounding her crumbling life. There's so much inane goings-on crammed within the final act that it's surprising how hollow director Hardwicke delivers it all -- partly because of the lack of empathy felt for the young starlet/mother, but also because the conclusion doesn't seem to know when enough's enough. Hardwicke might have another solid directorial outing stirring within her creative space, but she's missed an clear opportunity to realize it here.
Video and Audio:
Despite working on a shoestring budget, director Hardwicke and cinematographer Daniel Moder find some crafty ways to accentuate Plush with unique lighting and angles, which Millenium's 1.78:1-framed anamorphic transfer dazzlingly handles. The caliber of detail here is tremendous for a standard-definition disc, especially in a few exceptional close-ups on Browning, while the rock-solid richness of a wide array of light temperatures and contrast depths -- be it during daytime or night, indoors or out --stay impressive from start to finish. The only issue that crops up is some shimmering and aliasing in things like phone wires and densely-woven fabrics. Other than that, though, it's an immensely impressive transfer that made me forget that I wasn't watching in HD on more than a few occasions.
Likewise, a 5-channel Dolby Digital track also hits all the right notes, sporting a more robust presence during musical elements than dialogue. The film's "live" performances and record track sound really solid, hitting hard with throaty bass and nimble treble elements yet staying completely free of distortion. Dialogue doesn't have any issues with audibility, but its clarity isn't anything to really celebrate; it's balanced well enough against other aural elements and never comes across as strained. Some rather clear and punchy sound effects, like the strumming of an unplugged electric guitar and the rattle of a small personal vibrator, do create a few memorable aural moments. English and Spanish subtitles are available, as is a 2-channel stereo track.
Aside from a pair of Teaser Trailers, we've also got a music video, Half of Me Remix (2:29, 16x9), and Enzo Unleashed (2:13, 16x9), a showcase of the unbridled character.
While I commend Catherine Hardwicke for branching away from the horror-romance genre and digging back into more practical subject matter with Plush, she's missed the mark in several new ways with this awkwardly bizarre and ineffective drama-thriller. On paper, the concept of a musician breaking their comfort zone to rediscover their creativity and cope with the death of a loved one sounds intriguing, especially if they play with that fire for too long, but it's blended with such unconvincing pathos and strange provocations that its compelling center gets sapped rather quickly. Once it shifts into pure thriller territory, however, it simply loses its way in a repellent symphony of inane plot twists and blandly bizarre mannerisms, rendered shrug-worthy by an uninteresting performance from Browning. Skip It.