Reversal (2014) Sundance Review

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What: Film Review
Directed by: José Manuel Cravioto
Written by: Rock Shaink Jr.; Story by: Rock Shaink Jr., Keith Kjornes
Produced by: Alex Garcia, Rodolfo Marquez, Daniel Posada
Starring: Richard Tyson, Tina Ivlev, Stephanie Charles, Kristoffer Kjornes, Bianca Malinowski, Nihan Gur, Dustin Quick
Language: English
Running Time (in min.): 80 minutes
Rating: Not Yet Rated
Official Selection of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival

*****

Laughter from the audience in horror films can happen for one of two major reasons: the first is as a defense mechanism against unpleasantness, images so grotesque that keeping a chuckle inside means swallowing your fear; the second, and the one that emerged at the Sundance press screening, came from the silliness of onscreen action. But what makes J.M. Cravioto’s new film, Reversal, such an unfortunately goofy experiment in genre-bending and stylistic homage?

In what should be the highest-octane and terrifying of genres, Reversal positions itself as the least propulsive horror film in many moons. That it had its World Premiere in the Park City at Midnight section of this year’s festival is almost as baffling as the film’s sale on the ground to IFC Midnight. Whether for its sloppy style, inconsistent direction, or an almost complete lack of forward narrative energy, discerning audiences – which, as cynical as this business may be, I still believe are out there – are bound to turn on this film in the first minutes of theatrical viewing.

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That would be appropriate only in the sense that Cravioto’s new film, written by Rock Shaink Jr. with a story he co-wrote with the late Keith Kjornes (of Repligator and My Big Phat Hip Hop Family), pivots on Eve’s own table-turning. Locked in the dingy basement of a serial rapist (Richard Tyson, chewing scenery like a rabid termite), Reversal opens just as its protagonist has discovered how to escape after years of imprisonment. But as her opportunity to smash the bastard’s face in with a loose brick takes hold, he reveals – gasp! – that he’s been doing this lifetime kidnapping thing for awhile, and that if he dies, so will the many other girls he’s stranded around the Southern California desert. So Eve, a stupid person played smartly and with brio by Tina Ivlev (the only actor to make it out of this mess alive), commits herself to beating, torturing, and humiliating the maniac until she finds the other women.

Cravioto, to his credit, wastes absolutely no time, putting us immediately on the hunt both for the captives and the motivation that drives the psychopath who Eve forces to drive around. But what could be an opportunity for profound psychological games between a brutalistic feminine avenger and a scheming sexual freak a lá Silence of the Lambs instead wastes minute after minute on stylized dialogue that leads nowhere. Tyson, oscillating between the pathetic and the aggressive, overwhelms any sense of naturalism and force that Ivlev brings to the table, opting instead to embody a Beelzebub-like freak without power. Their encounters with the other women vary in pathological depth and mania, but all are laughable, such as one with a victim Tyson’s man has brainwashed into Stockholm Syndrome-like adoration (Dustin Quick).

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Further, Cravioto and his collaborators make the age-old mistake of confusing flash for fun, rendering several of his better images uninteresting and many of the worse visually incoherent. Working with the cinematographer Byron Werner, the filmmakers have opted for cool neon shades, pinks and purples that call attention to the steady Dutch angles that frame nearly each scene. The sense of Eve’s world as a sort of bloody purgatory owes as much to Werner’s work, which is equal parts assured and ghastly, as to Tim Stuart’s minimal set design and to the makeup by Megan Areford and Julia Hapney (mercifully consistent.) Werner’s style here is hyperactive while Cravioto’s direction is tame; the resultant sequences (edited by Jorge Macaya in weak form) are sometimes striking but typically at odds, so they play as extremely trite.

This juxtaposition was clear at the film’s premiere – never in my experience has a rape-revenge thriller put so many critics to sleep. That Reversal seemingly imagines itself as a feminist tall-tale with an ultimately empowering conclusion is its greatest mistake because in failing dramatically, it also fails to mobilize any political or social resonance. In the current dialogue around America’s epidemic rape culture, a film like Cravioto’s could have been so important, an entertaining alternative to another premiere at Sundance ’15: Kirby Dick’s much-lauded The Hunting Ground. Sadly, we should consider this just another lost opportunity.

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