If a Tree Falls (2010)
Reviewed by Mr. Dark
Starring Ryan Barrett, Jennifer De Lucia, Daniel Zuccala, Breanne TeBoekhorst
Directed by Philip Carrer
If a Tree Falls is two things I don't care for in movies. First, it's a faux-grindhouse movie with the scratchy film, retro "our feature presentation" and ratings placards, and 70's-style soundtrack. Second, it's a film that seems to exist purely for the purpose of violence on the screen. Note I didn't call it "torture porn" because there's little to no torture on screen, just brutal violence and murder.
I've said that to lay my cards out early: This isn't my kind of movie. Rob Zombie began and ended the faux-grindhouse genre with The Devil's Rejects. Attempting to mimic that success is a futile effort in my eyes. I feel filmmakers would be better served just telling their stories, whether they're period pieces set in the 70's or modern day films with a gritty feel that reminds them of the grindhouse days, such as this film.
When it comes to film violence, I'm not a prude. I love my gore, over-the-top violence, and carnage. But I do like it to serve a narrative. Violence without plot is pointless to me. Films like Martyrs and Haute Tension know how to push the limits of gore and violence while delivering stories that stick with you.
All of that said, I am NOT saying If a Tree Falls is a bad film. For a low-budget indie it's a decent little flick. So if you disagree with me on the two issues above, you may really enjoy it, even love it.
The entire film can be explained with one sentence: Four young people (a brother/sister duo, Brad and Lisa, and two friends) go on a road trip, stop to camp for the night, then are brutalized and murdered by six fiends with nylons hiding their identities. Yes, there's more to it than that, but not much. There is a bit of a twist at the end, but I'm not entirely sure what it was intended to "say" and why it happened. The characters' actions aren't really explained at all, either by things they said prior to the attack or anything that happened during the attack.
The first third or so is spent getting to know the victims as they leave on their trip, enjoy some time drinking and swimming, have a run-in with a weird local at a diner, etc. We get to know quite a bit about them, including a secret one of the siblings is keeping from her brother. My issue is that absolutely nothing we learn about these characters comes into play. A fair amount of screen time is dedicated to the sister's secret, and it doesn't end up mattering in the slightest.
I think I can see what they were going for here, however. You get to know these characters, but death comes to them regardless of their lives, their personal drama, their futures. It's sudden, merciless, and final. No motive, no defense. In this way the film reminds me of The Strangers, and my complaints with it are the same as I had with that film. Masked people suddenly terrorizing victims on screen just doesn't do enough for me to keep me interested. The Strangers was superior in style and performances, but in the end it hit me the same as this film did: Okay, that just happened...I wonder why it did?
While I can understand and even applaud the attempt by director Carrer and screenwriter Ryan Barrett to perhaps visualize random violence and death in the form of these six attackers, I just don't know if that point is really driven home. This is hinted at during some of the only dialogue from the masked attackers, when one of the victims is told "We find the ones that can't be found", suggesting they are the ones who kill those who go missing and are never seen again. The victims certainly fit that bill, parked way off the road, deep in the woods, camping in an unmarked location away from actual campgrounds and people, where nobody knows they will be. The near mythical nature of the attackers is also suggested by that fact: There's no real way they could know how to find the travelers.
The only issues I have with the film itself are less than sharp performances by a few supporting players and the fact that some of the dialogue between the male friends just doesn't feel remotely natural. Carrer clearly has talent as a director, and while the faux-grindhouse effects aren't my cup of tea, they do have a certain style to them. That he was also responsible for much of the soundtrack attests to his talent. It should also be mentioned that the violence is incredibly visceral and disturbing. The performances during the attacks, especially of writer Barrett as Brad, are quite strong and realistic.
Will you want to see If a Tree Falls? Do you enjoy films like the French Ils or the previously referenced The Strangers? There isn't any similarity beyond the concept of victims being attacked by faceless killers for no apparent reason, but that framework alone was enough to turn me off those films. If you were fine with that and don't mind the artificially aged look of films like Grindhouse, The Devil's Rejects, and Machete, then you may very well enjoy it. For me, it's just not my kind of film. I'm hoping that Carrer's next project has more of a narrative to go with the mayhem.
2 1/2 out of 5
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