Film

Review: Icy Drama The Lie and Twisted Sci-Fi Black Box Kick Off Amazon Prime and Blumhouse Horror Film Quartet

During the month of October, Amazon Prime Video will release a quartet of films from Blumhouse Television and Amazon Studios. They’re being promoted as horror films, but the first two I watched don’t really fit easily into that genre—which is not to say they aren’t disturbing and quite effective in their own ways. They certain fit comfortably in the thriller/heavy drama side of your typical Blumhouse offerings, but I’m guessing these are titles that lost or never had a theatrical release date and now have a home for us to finally view them.

The first two titles are now streaming, with the final two available on October 13.

On the shelf since 2018, The Lie—directed by Veena Sud (The Salton Sea; an executive producer on such series as “The Killing” and “Cold Case”)—tells the story of a broken family that goes through an ordeal that tests their loyalty to each other and the teen daughter at the center of this icy drama. We’re introduced to divorced couple Rebecca (Mireille Enos) and Jay (Peter Sarsgaard), whose relationship flaws are immediately recognizable with just a few choices exchanges. She’s an attorney—responsible, slightly uptight, more strict with their daughter Kayla (Joey King); he’s a would-be, aging musician, in a band with his younger girlfriend, and easily manipulated by Kayla. It’s Jay’s responsibility to get Kayla to a weekend ballet camp a couple hours away, across snowy terrain. On the way there, they find Kayla’s BFF Brittany (Devery Jacobs) waiting for a bus to take her to the same place and offer her a ride.

The Lie

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

In the first of many suspicious moves, Brittany begs Jay to pull over the car so she can run into the woods to pee. Kayla offers to go with her, and the two vanish into the snowy woods. Tired of waiting, Jay goes to look for them, hears his daughter scream, and finds her sitting on the edge of a bridge looking down into the freezing river below, into which she says she has just pushed her best friend. Understanding that no one but he and his daughter know that Brittany was even with them, Jay begins to think that maybe this incident (which he is convinced was an accident) can be covered up, if his daughter can keep quiet and stay emotionally calm—which is asking a great deal of a teenage girl. But at almost every turn, Kayla keeps making the wrong move or saying the wrong thing, almost as if she wants to get caught or have suspicion thrown onto her about Brittany’s disappearance.

Based on the German film We Monsters, The Lie is a tense and nerve-racking exercise in spinning a web of lies that is constantly being torn down and re-spun because of careless actions and flimsy planning. Once Rebecca is involved, she starts looking at things from a legal perspective, and she even crosses a line by pointing a police friend (Patti Kim) in the direction of Brittany’s father (Sam Ifrani) by painting him as having a violent temper. Kayla’s parents make scheme after scheme, and often it’s their own daughter who throws a wrench in the works, forcing them to improvise in some truly horrific ways. But, the coverup does actually bring the divorced couple closer together, with this shared objective of protecting their daughter. Kayla notices this, somehow making her react even more carelessly, perhaps letting her guard down about the real danger she’s in.

There’s very little guarantee that you’re going to like any of the characters in The Lie, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t put yourself in their shoes and wonder what you would do in the same circumstance. I tend to hate parents protecting their criminal children in any story, but these actors are so immensely likable—even in these circumstances—that you find yourself rooting for them against your better judgement, even it’s to see them squirm as they feel their morality and ethics evaporate before their eyes. The movie ends in a gut-punch moment that, if you don’t see it coming, is going to shock you, liquify your soul, and make you question every good feeling you may have had about any of these characters. Director Sud (who also adapted the original screenplay) has done a terrific job making it clear that things may not be what they seem, but they also might be exactly what they seem, and we’re not sure which is worse. You don’t want the ending spoiled, trust me; but you probably shouldn’t be too sure you want the truth of it all in your head either. This journey may drain you, but I believe it’s worth it nevertheless.

Slanting more toward science fiction than horror, director/co-writer Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s first feature Black Box concerns Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie), who lost his wife in a tragic car accident that also resulted in him losing a great deal of his memory after being in a coma for a time. As a result, his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) has to assume a great deal of the family’s day-to-day responsibility, like making certain meals or putting notes all over the house to remind her dad to do and not do certain things. It’s a frustrating process that apparently comes to a head just before we join the story, with Nolan punching a hole in a wall out of anger.

Black Box

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

Out of ideas on how to improve or get back seemingly lost memories, he agrees to visit world-renowned neuropsychiatrist Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), who has an experimental process—called the Black Box—involving hypnosis and virtual reality that has done wonders for other patients in regaining lost memories. Strangely, the initial memories Nolan conjures resemble strange dreams he’s been having that show him in situations and places that he’s never been a part of, and no matter the situation, the memory is interrupted by the presence of a terrified, cracking and twisted-up creature who face he can never quite see but who always attempts to choke him before he wakes up. Dr. Brooks assures him that the visions are simply a case of his mind attempting to run him instead of him running his mind—something she intends to reverse.

In the therapy, Nolan sees his wedding or him at home with his wife and daughter, except the church and their apartment are places he’s never visited before, and he begins to suspect the memories don’t even belong to him. Without giving anything away, the disfigured being in his head gets more and more aggressive, as does Dr. Brooks as she gets closer and closer to her goals with Nolan. Things get a bit twisted as the truth of these other visions becomes clear, and at a certain point, it wasn’t too tough to figure out where things were heading. Both the big reveal and the eventual climax are so tepid, I almost thought maybe I missed something along the way. Sadly, the real flaw is in the dramatic constructs of the film.

The acting in Black Box is across-the-board terrific, and I especially love being reminded what a powerhouse Rashad can be when given decent material to dig her teeth into. Athie and many of the actors in the movie were discoveries for me, and I especially liked the performance by Tosin Morohunfola as Gary, Nolan’s best friend, who also happens to be a doctor and work in the same facility as Dr. Brooks. Hmmm. The film doesn’t always crackle the way it needs to sometimes, but its sci-fi plot never feels completely outside the realm of possibility and allows it to feel grounded in some type of reality. The emotional torment—of which there is a great deal—comes honestly, and that might end up being the movie’s saving grace. It’s not great, but it’s a solid B-movie in the end.

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