ArtsATL > Film > Review: “It Follows” does a slow and seductive boil; “Serena” wilts under its own star power

Review: “It Follows” does a slow and seductive boil; “Serena” wilts under its own star power

J-Law and Bradley Cooper are almost too big for the good of Serena.

 

It Follows.
Maika Monroe gets an unwelcome surprise in It Follows.

Don’t look behind you . . . or, rather, do. Look all the time. That’s the message of the low-key, shivery It Follows.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer slow zombies to the sprinting kind introduced in 28 Days Later. Slower is scarier. Sure, you can run away from a shuffling, brain-starved member of the undead. You can get home, bar the door. But you can’t breathe easy, can’t close your eyes for long. Because that zombie? He’s still walking. He’s still coming for you. He won’t stop. 

That’s the M.O. in this intelligent, artfully shot, slow-burn horror film. Not actually a zombie movie, it owes more to master British ghost storyteller M. R. James’ Casting the Runes, filmed with understated spookiness by Jacques Tourneur as Night/Curse of the Demon. (The two titles reflect different cuts of the 1957 film; the longer, 95-minute Night version is the one to watch.) 

It Follows writer-director David Robert Mitchell doesn’t credit M. R. James. But he gives a shout-out to John Carpenter in his opening scene, where the camera tracks a young woman running in panic around a placid neighborhood at sunset. It’s a clear homage to Halloween, down to the insistent, synth-driven score. 

Something bad happens to this girl, culminating in a shocking, jump-cut image that makes you fear that you’re in for a gore-fest. Instead, this prologue leaves you anxious throughout the rest of a movie that unfolds with the intent to unsettle you in stealthier ways.   

We’re in Michigan, where Detroit’s rotting inner city serves as a supporting player all its own. Our heroine is Jay (Maika Monroe). She attends classes at a local college but, like her friends, hasn’t quite figured out the bridge between high school and What Comes Next. Her circle includes her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), their egghead pal Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and dweeby friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who’s quietly got the hots for Jay. 

Too bad for him: she’s seeing a new guy in town named Hugh (Jake Weary). After a few dates, they have sex — and Jay gets a hell of a surprise in one of the movie’s strongest spooky sequences. Hugh explains that he’s passed a curse on to her. A tireless, walking demon — which can look like a complete stranger, man, woman, child, or a friend or family member — is now on her track. Only Jay can see it, and Jay can only dispel the curse by passing it onto someone else — via sex. 

It’s a terrific horror-movie setup, as well as a rich metaphor for STDs or HIV — or just the hard knocks, disappointments and dangers that their postchildhood lives may soon deliver to these young people. If they survive that long. 

It Follows generally avoids easy shocks in favor of a gathering mood of remorseless dread. Besides John Carpenter, the movie has hints of Sofia Coppola and David Lynch. As a director, Mitchell is a savvy borrower. A caveat, though. Maybe because it’s the time of year when a lot of the movies dumped in theaters are shlock, but It Follows has been met with a critical rapture that’s not quite justified. Lower your expectations. 

The movie’s climactic sequence at a public swimming pool is filled with missteps. After getting great mileage from evasiveness, the script gives us a showdown that seems to be making up the rules as it goes. Luckily, the final minutes return to the eerie ambiguity that distinguishes most of the movie. 

It shows us that the survivors’ lives have been shadowed forever . . . which isn’t much different from anyone else who transitions from youth to adulthood. We’re all followed, casually but relentlessly, by at least one specter from the past.

If It Follows is an out-of-nowhere, no-name surprise, another surprise is a movie made by boldface names who trail Oscars and Oscar nominations. But it’s not a good surprise. 

What a lovely, strange wreck Serena is. The same could be said of its title character, who comes into focus a little too late. That’s partly due to Oscar-winning Danish director Susanne (In a Better World) Bier’s technically accomplished but dramatically unfocused work. In particular, she made a couple of casting decisions that, like her movie, aim for physical beauty rather than clarity.

J-Law and Bradley Cooper are almost too big for the good of Serena.
The miscast J-Law and Bradley Cooper in Serena.

In this adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 novel, Bradley Cooper (he’s the beauty part, male division) plays rich timber heir Pemberton who, on a trip home to Boston, weds a headstrong beauty he barely knows, Jennifer Lawrence’s Serena (yes, she’s the female division). Overseeing a Depression-era logging operation that’s clearing North Carolina’s mountains of their old-growth trees, they’re surrounded by the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains — as portrayed by the Czech Republic, anyway.  

When she first arrives as a newlywed at the lumber camp, blond, stunning, bold Serena is greeted with wariness by Pemberton’s crew and hostility by townsfolk who know Pemberton has fathered a baby with a poor local girl Rachel (Ana Ularu). “It doesn’t matter,” Serena says to her husband when she susses the situation. “Our love began the day we met.”

I haven’t read Rash’s book. From what I’ve learned, though, that’s not an accurate reflection of Serena’s feelings on the subject, at least in the source material. A crucial, bloody scene in the book, eliminated here, sets up the story’s conflict between Serena and Rachel. In the movie, it takes a long time to figure out what, exactly, the stakes are. Or who, exactly, Serena is — a dreamer, a schemer, a heroine or a monster? 

For a while it doesn’t matter. We watch Serena win over the surly lumbermen, including British actor Sean Harris and Welshman Rhys Ifans, both playing American rustics. To guard the workers against rattlesnakes, Serena trains an eagle as an advance-guard predator. Lawrence holds out a gloved hand, and the fierce bird swoops to alight on it — a glorious image that’s exactly the sort of thing we go to the movies to watch stars do. 

Lawrence is definitely a star, a radiant figure who might have been at home in Hollywood’s golden age. She looks great in the period clothes and marcelled hair. But if she’s a star, she’s a very young star. More on that in a minute.

It takes half the movie’s running time to get a handle on Serena. Lawrence’s characterization is of a woman who’s impetuous, capricious, fragile and dangerous, but in a sly way. She’s like a shrewd royal handmaiden — until, you realize, she’s supposed to be throwing off sparks as a Depression-era Lady Macbeth. Only near the end of the movie do you think, “Oh, that’s who she is, and this is what the story is really about.” 

After three films together, Lawrence and Cooper have a natural rapport. And neither one is right for their roles. They’re too lovely, like golden honey poured on stacks of golden pancakes, when what the movie needs is cane sorghum on hoe cakes, with a side shot of bourbon. 

They’re not the only ones miscast. Maybe some things were lost in translation, due to a Danish director overseeing an international cast. The usually fine British actor Toby Jones, as the local sheriff, tries out a “rural American” accent so thuddingly tone-deaf, he derails the movie every time he shows up. (Cooper flirts badly, too, with a Boston accent.) 

There’s also a borderline homophobic subplot about one of Pemberton’s underlings, whose repressed lust for his boss leads to sabotage. The biggest problem, though, is that Christopher Kyle’s screenplay doesn’t lay out the story clearly. 

Now, back to Jennifer Lawrence. Directors and writers are so eager to tap into her talent, her life force, they continue giving her roles that aren’t right. If she’s a little too old to play Katniss Everdeen now, she’s way too young for women like Serena, or the manipulative moll she played in American Hustle, or even the cop’s widow in Silver Linings Playbook, which won her the Oscar.

She’s never less than magnetic. But she needs some growing time and some real experience to fully embody conniving, complicated women years older than her own 24. That said, I’d watch her in just about any piece of nonsense. This is one of them. 

It Follows. With Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Rated R. 100 minutes. At metro theaters. 

Serena. With Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper. Directed by Susanne Bier. 109 minutes. Rated R. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. 

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