Starring Robert Hands, Evan Bendall, Michaela Prchalová
Directed by Ruth Platt
For over 20 years, the Slamdance Film Festival has provided low-budget indies and up-and-coming filmmakers a means for notable exposure, running on a parallel schedule to the famed Sundance Film Festival each year in Park City, Utah. The appealing thing about Slamdance for a site like Dread Central is the breadth of film genres that tends to be featured over the course of its three-day run, which often includes a handful of films in horror and its related genres.
One of these entries that is sure to make a splash this year is Ruth Platt’s The Lesson, which saw its first Stateside screening on the second night of the fest (January 23rd). Coming off of a positive run at the 2015 FILM4 FrightFest in London, this psychological horror entry from English actress-turned-director Ruth Platt may wear torture porn trappings, but it has much more to say — and satirize — when all is said and done. A tale of a psychological break, the failings of the education system, and the detrimental indifference of youth culture, The Lesson is far more significant in its underlying purpose than its oft violent execution might suggest.
The Lesson follows Fin (Bendall), a 16-year-old who lives with his brother, Jake (Tom Cox), and Jake’s girlfriend, Mia (Prchalová), who often acts a surrogate mother figure. Along with his uncouth cohorts, Fin embodies the heart of “chav” culture, a pejorative term associated with a rebellious youth subculture in the UK marked by boorish behavior and violence. Fin and his crew spend their days wreaking havoc upon schoolmates and instructors, seemingly on no real path for life success and without any sense of accountability. Mr. Gale (Hands), an English teacher at the end of his rope, is about to change all of that, however. Tortured daily by his students and the futility of the daily grind, Mr. Gale finally snaps on one unsuspecting evening, encountering Fin and his most raucous companion Joel (Rory Coltart) on the way home from an outing. After knocking out and abducting the two teenagers, Mr. Gale takes them to a makeshift classroom of his own creation — a den of torture in which he vows to teach the boys a lesson they will never forget.
What works brilliantly in The Lesson is Platt’s ability to immediately establish a morally challenging environment in which it’s hard not to see both sides. Where Fin and Joel’s insufferable juvenility grows frustrating quite early in the film and Mr. Gale’s futile attempts to get his students to care are heartbreaking, you would expect the tables to turn completely once violence is ultimately inflicted upon the boys in the latter’s torture chamber. Curiously enough, this is not quite the case, as there remains a level of understandable reason — albeit very twisted reason — to Mr. Gale’s cause.
Robert Hands is fantastic as the beleaguered teacher, bringing the character to life with a nuanced performance that captures both a pitiable dejection and an impassioned, but maniacal kineticism; he makes it quite difficult for the audience to root against the bad guy. Bendall also brings a youthful complexity to Fin, whose intelligence is evident as Mr. Gale’s literature and philosophy lessons grow more treacherous. As truths about his tattered upbringing are revealed, you come to sympathize with Fin’s bleak mentality on life in his rural black hole of a town; ultimately you root for his latent intellectual faculties to kick in, not only to save his and Joel’s lives from Mr. Gale, but to also save him from such a dead-end societal cycle, too.
Platt’s direction is taut and claustrophobic, and she often puts the audience in Fin’s chair in the most suspenseful of moments. There are a number of scenes featuring Mr. Gale’s weapon of choice — a nail gun — that will raise blood pressures all around, toying with anticipation in the most effective ways in his grimy den. For being a film that is heavy on torture, however, gore lovers may be notably disappointed in the lack of on-screen violence that Platt elects to show. While there are certainly some unsettling and visceral moments, the horror here is more dependent upon tension and suggestion rather than outright blood and guts.
The Lesson progressively unfolds as a rather atypical horror story, and more often than not, Platt’s subversion tactics are quite effective. I was quite amused by the use of dark humor in her script, which sneakily serves to satirize much of the situation at hand, making subtle statements about the roles of both students and educators in modern society and the cyclical disappointments experienced on both ends when people fail the system. The Lesson occasionally dips into arthouse territory as well in favor of straightforward horror tropes, particularly in a couple of ways that serve to represent Mr. Gale’s mental instability and Fin’s own frenzied state. These moments may not work for some who tend to feel hoodwinked by such cinematic devices, but I rather enjoyed Platt’s decisions on both counts.
Though mostly consistent in its script, tone, and performances, The Lesson does feature a few tiresome, drawn out moments in Mr. Gale’s torture den and some visual perspective shots here and there that come across as more amateur than auteur. The final scene also feels slightly unnecessary and may confound some in the audience as well; I personally think the film could have ended about five minutes sooner on a particularly striking shot featuring two of the lead characters (you will definitely see what I mean if you catch the film). Ultimately, though, these minor gripes do not take away from the fact that The Lesson is a wonderful exercise in tension that is rich with substance and is sure to stir up conversations. Platt comes out swinging as an intelligent directorial force with this debut, and I look forward to seeing more of what she has to offer the genre in the future.
Did you have a chance to catch The Lesson at Slamdance or Film4 FrightFest? Sound off in the comments below or tweet me (@TheAriDrew) and share your thoughts!