Sunday, January 26, 2020

The Turning (2020)

Director: Floria Sigismondi
Notable Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten, Joely Richardson, Kim Adis

January has been, at least in my lifetime, known as a month where studios dump questionable movies into theaters. In the last handful of years though, it has increasingly been a time period where genre films find a strong following. Whether it’s horror films that don’t quite fit in anywhere else during the year or action films that have a question mark looming over them, January has become a place where films either go to die – or find new life. This January has been no exception. Despite a horrific box office debut, Underwater proved to be a shockingly quality film and Bad Boys for Life has become a surprise box office juggernaut. The Turning, on the other hand, has proven to be neither despite some initial intrigue from the horror community.

Based on the very popular novella, The Turn of the Screw, The Turning is just the latest adaption to hit the silver screen. The novella has already been adapted numerous times including the incredible 1961 film The Innocents and as inspiration for other media including the upcoming Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor, the sequel to their critic and viewer acclaimed series The Haunting of Hill House, so there is hardly any shortage of versions to see of this film.  It’s not surprising then that another film based on this intellectual property would be slated for release, but with so many options to consume, one has to wonder just what The Turning would have to offer in this particular instance.

This question of validity looms heavily as the film plays out. The 1990s setting is intriguing at first, but with little or no relevance to how the plot, characters, or narrative spin it ends up being more of a red herring than a truly unique aspect. In fact, the film weirdly plays it close to the chest with its set up as it follows its source material. We have our governess, now an in-home tutor played with a decent command by Mackenzie Davis, who is sent to the home to care for two kids, Flora and Miles, where she starts to uncover feelings that the estate is haunted by its own traumatic past. It’s even reasonable to say that the first half of the film is decent, if not intriguing, in how it starts to set up its elements. It’s relatively bland in its narrative, sure, but the cast is game and solid performances partnered with the stylish and gothic nature of how director Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) shoots the film lays the groundwork for some fantastic ideas and execution. Themes about anxiety towards genetic mental illness, parenting limits, symbolism with spiders, and the nature of domestic violence with toxic masculinity boil under the surface of the film and indicate that, yes, maybe there is something to be said in this modernized adaption that justify the film’s existence. However, despite some great moments of old-school ghostly horror, The Turning is a film that utterly disintegrates in front of its viewers.

The Turning ends up feeling like its viewer is watching someone put together a large jigsaw puzzle and struggling to do so. We know what the puzzle is meant to look like by the front of the box, but the person we are watching put it together keeps placing the pieces in the wrong areas, creating a disjointed and ill-fitting representation of the picture. As it goes on, the pieces just get more chaotic and make less sense and eventually, the person putting it together gets so frustrated they stand up and leave, abandoning the project and its viewer. This is how The Turning works. As it goes, the pieces of the story – a familiar story, mind you – become so jumbled and disorienting that it becomes a chore to decipher. The visuals remain intriguing, the performances remain strangely strong, and the idea is still there, but the product is not at all what was promised in the beginning. An attempt to create a dream-like third act only results in a film that feels like it has no real ending or way to tie up its themes, characters, or plot – which feels like salt in the wound for an audience that was trying to desperately work through some of the bland setup and problematic storytelling that had come before. By the time the credits rolled, I sat in my chair feeling like Cobra Kai just swept my legs out from under me, wondering what the hell I just watched.

With the talent included in the film, which is – for the record – executive produced by Steven fuckin’ Spielberg, one has to wonder just what happened with The Turning. The potential is squandered for a film that feels like it has no real message or finale and, to make matters worse, feels like it was cobbled together with no vision of an end product. There are things to like about the film, the gothic setting, some fantastic visuals, a dense atmosphere, and a cast that is giving us their A-game, but when it feels like there was no goal for the film, it reads as all for naught. With its problematic production and a yearlong postponing for its release date from the studio, one might have seen this coming. All in all, The Turning feels as haunted by its own traumas as the estate in the film and, like its dream-inspired final act, will rightly be forgotten by morning. It remains as one of those quintessential January dump films.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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