Mixing genres can be a tricky thing in the movies, but in the last couple years, some of the finest exercises in horror—The Babadook, A Quiet Place, The Witch, Hereditary—have been as much about the drama that threatens to tear apart the central family as they are about a monster or demon. And of course, last year’s king of the hill, Get Out, was a clever social satire blended with thriller elements.
Science fiction is a bit different, since it’s had roots in social commentary almost since it was created. But with the new film Kin, the Australian-born sibling (twins, actually) directing team Jonathan and Josh Baker bring us a science fiction story that is more about a fractured family trying to hold it together under extreme pressure.
Teenager Eli Solinski (relative newcomer Myles Truitt) is a young black kid growing up in Detroit with his adopted father Hal (Dennis Quaid, in ultra-grumpy mode). To make a little money on the side, Eli breaks into condemned buildings to rip out copper wiring and pipes for scrap to sell. On one of these expeditions, Eli finds what looks like a black box (approximately the size of a toaster oven, but flatter) that when trigger in a specific way opens up to look a lot like a high-powered gun, but not one from this time or maybe even this planet. There are helmeted soldiers (who look a lot like Daft Punk gone horribly wrong, I’m not going to lie) searching for the gun and therefore, searching for Eli.
Soon after finding his new toy, Eli’s older brother Jimmy (Jack Raynor) returns home from prison, seemingly eager to leave his life of crime behind him. But before long, he’s heading out to visit a low-level thug, Balik (James Franco), to whom Jimmy owes money, and soon Jimmy is plotting to rob the safe belonging to his father’s construction company. Not surprisingly, even this goes horribly wrong, leaving Jimmy and Eli on the run from Balik, whose brother was accidentally killed during the robbery attempt.
Written by Daniel Casey, Kin is based on the Baker brothers’ award-winning 2014 short film Bag Man, about a young kid walking around with a large bag with mysterious contents, which turns out to be the ray gun. In the short, young Eli doesn’t speak at all, and similarly Eli is more of an observer and thinker than the rest of the motor-mouthes in Kin. Truitt excels at doing the most without saying more than he has to, and the result is that he ends up guiding Jimmy more so than Jimmy (who has no idea about the gun until Eli uses it to save him midway through the movie) protects Eli.
The film becomes a road movie when the siblings go running from Balik (and the mysterious soldiers, although they don’t know about them yet), and before long they pick up a stripper named Milly (Zoe Kravitz), who becomes the de facto maternal figure of the group—and thankfully not a romantic interest for Jimmy. The Bakers seem to have more fun building up the characters and the complicated relationship between the brothers than they do dealing with the science fiction portions of the film. In fact, it’s probably true that with a slight rework, the science fiction could be removed and the family story would be just as interesting, if not more so.
All parties meet in an explosive final act set in and around a Nevada police station. Carrie Coon randomly shows up in this moment as an FBI agent who has been tracking the brothers across state lines. No complaints at all about seeing Coon in the film, but honestly, she’s in two scenes and could have been played by a street sign for all she’s given to do. And when the true identity of the soldiers is revealed, it forces us to reconsider much of what we’ve seen in the entire movie.
In many ways, Kin is an origin story, the beginning of the Hero’s Journey. It opens up the possibility of a much bigger universe of characters, settings, even other realms, and I certainly wouldn’t be against seeing the continuing adventures of Eli and his new friends. But the bolder and more interesting move would be to leave this as a standalone work; sometimes the first couple of chapters of someone’s story are all we need.
Eli spends most of the story feeling like his life in Detroit will never amount to anything and that he’ll never be special, but by the end of Kin, we know that at some point down the road of his life, his world will become extraordinary. That’s all he and we really need to know, and maybe we don’t need yet another trilogy of young adult stories and expanded universes to tell a solid, worthy adventure tale. Kin certainly has its issues, but leaving us hanging is not one of them, despite what may be your initial reaction to the end of the film.
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