REVIEW: Redlands [2014]

Score: 4/10 | ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 108 minutes | Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (USA)
Director(s): John Brian King
Writer(s): John Brian King

“I want to push beyond reality and become immortal through art”

As an art-house piece, AMOK Books founder/owner John Brian King‘s debut feature film Redlands is pretty much what you’d expect from someone who’s curated an exhibit of John Wayne Gacy‘s “clown” paintings, produced an S&M performance entitled “Nailed!”, and interviewed Charles Manson at San Quentin Prison. It’s a darkly serene drama focusing on an outgoing Ohio girl trying to jumpstart a nude modeling career in California by confidently showcasing its naïve starlet amongst a slew of misogynistic males within a well-intentioned but failed attempt at commentary on the voyeuristic gaze’s thin line between art and lechery. A fine art graduate and accomplished film title designer (whether on Boogie Nights or a slew of Disney fare like The Rookie or Lilo & Stitch), what’s lacking in King’s storytelling polish is somewhat offset by his keen aesthetic eye.

With maybe ten or so different static camera set-ups shot as long takes and separated by a lingering look at the exterior of each new locale, Redlands meticulously demonstrates King’s handle on visual composition. Adding to our position as a helplessly silent bystander, each scene becomes a claustrophobic prison we may search two-dimensionally but never explore freely. We therefore willfully join the experience as Vienna (“America’s Next Top Model” victor Nicole Fox) does, vulnerable and exposed despite our relationship to the film as well as her foundation of trust with new patron Allan (Clifford Morts) and boyfriend Zack (Sam Brittan) being based entirely on a mixture of consumerism and sex. Complicit to the viciously mean-spirited actions on display, we’re supposed to feel guilt and empathy through our continued desire to watch until the end.

But while each sterile sequence hinging on steady performances from amateur actors more akin to short films and stage intrigues our artistic sensibilities with daring construction and non-mainstream appeal, they also make it so we cannot feel anything for the characters. The stark foreboding nature of what Vienna allows herself to partake in outside of her bubbly vlogs talking about an overwhelming sense of excitement for the future can’t help but tease the violent end we’re working towards with each escalating encounter. And yet after the inevitable happens, King looks to conjure our sympathy as though to show all the terribly tragic events in this world are unavoidable due to unforeseen circumstances and unjust fate rather than the result of our actions in fits of uncontrollable rage. Unfortunately I felt nothing but a yearning to escape.

That is a success itself. King dug into my psyche and pulled out a viscerally emotive reaction, just not the one I believe he intended to create. He appears to be going for a Michael Haneke approach of pure, unadulterated truth to make us squirm, question morality, and wonder at the cruelty of our world, but he doesn’t quite have the tools yet to do so. Instead of evoking a sense of suspense with his slow, methodical progressions, he earns a restless boredom bred from our frustration in having to endure more scenes alluding to what we already understand. Watching Allan explode on a female credit card operator over the phone and his young daughter at the park explains his increasing unpredictability succinctly enough. We’re sticking around for his rage’s endgame, not more examples of its strength.

However, rather than solely focus on Vienna and Allan’s pairing to do so—the volatility we see brewing and the professional opportunity she fantasizes has arrived—we’re shown more instances of the male gaze’s oppressive, animalistic nature. Besides Allan’s outbursts, a camera store clerk (Leland Montgomery) goes off on a weird customer (Connie Shin) and Zack domineers Vienna by choking her for arousal at home while forcing a friend’s girlfriend to gag during oral sex in a cruelly long take made worse by her sheepish smile and seeming want for more. Maybe King is testing us to see whether these horrors arouse us too—I don’t know. All I can say is that I began to hope Vienna would find herself murdered if only to get away from the creeps she cannot seem to shake.

At one point we see Zack and his band record a song to show he’s a control freak everywhere. His “friends” put up with his egotistical temper and we hate him even more. But in the grand scheme, these moments of him isolated don’t enhance Vienna’s story. Yes they help prove she has a bad case of falling prey to despicable men’s good intentions and ease at begging forgiveness, but that’s learned well before this point. I guess one could say Vienna doesn’t possess a monopoly on Redlands‘ focus, but she is its most interesting and complex piece. We wonder if she’ll wake up, help Allan curb his anger, or show the side of her easy-going party girl that learned a decent vocabulary whether she uses each word correctly or not.

Our complete attention being on her is a testament to Fox’s affable innocence and King’s wielding of her sexuality. Anytime she’s not onscreen carries a noticeable lull besides a couple scenes of Allan’s unraveled, middle-aged soul played by Morts with nerves, insecurities, and a palpable passion to create. We notice the juxtaposition between Vienna’s disgust at being ogled at the office and her fervor to strip naked for Allan as a battle of lust against “purity of form”, but like the motionless camera these insights come across as cold and without depth. The last sequence tries to add one more voyeuristic comment two scenes too late and King’s explaining of the why of Allan and Vienna’s troubles after their bloody collision with fate only makes it seem he didn’t trust our intellect to read between the lines.

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