SEPARATION Review–Puppets and Divorce Merge in Awkward Horror Movie
Separation starring Rupert Friend and Mamie Gummer
Written by Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun
Directed by William Brent Bell
William Brent Bell’s Separation is confounding. A puzzling pastiche of better horror movies, Separation has the unenviable task of being the first wide-release genre feature available in most markets after theaters shuttered this time last year. A few features found their way to the multiplex in the intermittent period, but those– such as last October’s criminally underrated Come Play– were isolated to those sequestered parts of the country where theaters were (negligibly) open for business. Separation, then, is the year’s true inaugural horror outing and borrowing its cues from the year that preceded its release, few could have predicted just how preposterous and unbelievably wild it would be.
Separation largely follows Jeff and Jenny Vahn (Rupert Friend and Violet McGraw of Hill House fame), a father and daughter grappling with grief and supernatural forces after mother and wife Maggie (Mamie Gummer) is killed in a hit and run. There’s domestic squabbling, an overbearing father-in-law (Brian Cox), and lots and lots of puppets. It’s a whole lot of something that amounts to a whole lot of nothing, and by most critical metrics, might be considered an outright failure. There are no genuine scares, the acting is scattershot– Gummer is channeling her mother’s Oscar-winning turn in Kramer vs. Kramer while Friend plays Jeff as some mid-2000s, Juno, cool dad redux– and the plot is inconceivably nonexistent. An urban brownstone adorned with the trinkets and tchotchkes of a ghostly haunting without any of the requisite verve or menace to imbue it with any logic or rhythm.
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Curiously, though, with the right mindset, Separation becomes something more. Other outlets have justifiably branded it not only the year’s worst horror offering, but one of the worst ever. The movie is misogynistic, inept, and an unconscionable misfire given the talent involved. Any worst movie, though, inevitably attracts a particular kind of audience. An at-home Mystery Science Theater crowd waiting with bated breath to see just how bad a movie really is. Through that lens, Separation is far from the worst horror movie in over a decade. If anything, it is an awkward hodgepodge of incalculable quirks and filmic camp. If not a masterpiece, is at least consistently entertaining.
Awkwardness is, perhaps, its raison d’être. When Jeff accepts a new job from an old friend, Connor (Eric T. Miller), he’s asked when he can start, to which Jeff curiously replies, “Thank you.” The editing and composition suggest an entire section of this exchange is missing, though instead of scrapping the dialogue in its entirety, it is patched together uncannily. An exchange that resembles the way two people might talk without actually being so. Later, Jeff is meeting with boss, Alan (Simon Quaterman) when, mid-scene, the movie cuts to an establishing shot of Jeff’s home. Nary an L cut is in sight– no dialogue carries over. Inexplicably, the scene just ends, and Separation marches forever onward, editing be damned.
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There is no tangibility to the (rather gloriously) designed and performed monsters. Pantomiming the physicality of Jeff’s comic book puppets, these beasts are Separation’s most effective element. Even if it seems as if Jeff’s home has invisible social-distancing markers scattered throughout– only once does a marionette ghoul get closer than six feet to a potential victim. A final act montage is nothing more than earlier footage spliced out of order with sentimental music in the background. A human antagonist dazedly remarks, “Oh” when presented with damning evidence of their complicity in a crime. Maggie is repeatedly referred to as Jeff’s ex-wife, even by Jeff himself, despite their divorce never having been finalized.
This awkwardness is not demonstrative of Separation in its entirety, of course. There are genuinely striking visuals. And the central ghoul, a kind of Brooklyn Baba Yaga, is one of the year’s better movie monsters. Gummer and McGraw, too, are very, very good, acting so well it belies the tepidness of the male performances. It is Separation’s saving grace, too, that for as much as it ambles awkwardly between Hallmark histrionics and Syfy original scares, it is never boring.
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It may sound somewhat backhanded to suggest that a movie is so bad, it’s kind of good. That might fit Separation, and it is currently is where I land. There are, though, enough objective success within its 2-hour runtime to at least suggest that, far from being so bad it’s good, it might simply be good. Time will certainly tell. And when the dust settles and the feeding frenzy concludes, Separation will get a chance to redefine itself. There’s a lot of promise within its mid-century, New York walls. And though the final package is an awkward beast, walking with the finesse of its own haunted puppets, it warrants a look. Don’t cut yourself loose just yet– give Separation a chance.
A pale pastiche of better movies, Separation might not be good, but its marionette mayhem emerges as curiously entertaining.