Review: A Crowded, Muddled Separation Frustratingly Buries its Potential for Scares

In William Brent Bell’s Separation, there’s a Brooklyn couple who fights constantly in front of their 8-year-old daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw). One day, when Jenny is hurt playing in the attic while struggling comic-book artist dad Jeff (Rupert Friend) is downstairs being a bit too flirty with babysitter Samantha (Madeline Brewer), lawyer mom Maggie (Mamie Gummer) decides it’s time to file for that long overdue divorce. It doesn’t help Jeff in the proceedings that Maggie’s father (Brian Cox) is one of the most powerful attorneys in New York. When things look particularly dire for Jeff’s chances at getting any significant custody of Jenny, Maggie suddenly gets hit in the middle of the street by a hit-and-run driver and dies. What happens next is a classic example of someone just not being able to let go when they really want something, even if that someone is dead.
Image courtesy of Open Road Films / Briarcliff Entertainment

The deeper Separation explores Jeff’s career past, the weirder he seems. Years earlier, he created a comic series called “Grisly Kin,” about a family of truly creepy puppets, which he ended up having made for a possible television series that he pulled the plug on because he wasn’t 100 percent in control—a decision that cost the family a lot of money and was the first of many steps on Maggie’s path to resenting Jeff’s lifestyle. Jeff gave the creepy puppets to his daughter, who saw them as her friends (we certainly don’t ever see her with any other children), and when things start to get weird in the house after Maggie’s death, both Jeff and Jenny begin to see things that resemble these puppets coming to life, only life-size.

With Cox’s grandfather character still looming and threatening to take Jenny away, Jeff lands a job at an old college friend’s comic book company where he meets a writer whose dark storylines seem to sync up with Jeff’s drawing style, giving Jeff his first chance of being on top in his industry again. But nothing quite seems to stop the occurrences at home, which Jeff is convinced are his late wife tormenting him and trying to tear father and daughter apart.

Director Bell (The Boy, Brahms: The Boy II, and the upcoming Orphan prequel Orphan: First Kill) has the unfortunate ability to set the stage for a decent horror story without ever really following through. In fact, the deeper he gets into his mythology and the reasons scary things are happening, the more hollow and confusing things become. For example, I’m fairly certain there was something creepy in the house before Maggie died, so her ghost is just adding fuel to the fire. Also, I was never really sure what Ghost Maggie wanted with the little girl. Is she trying to kill her so Jenny can join her in the afterlife? Or is she trying to protect her from some other dangerous force in her life? At various times, both seem true. Meanwhile, what the hell is the babysitter up to once Maggie is gone? Very little about Separation pans out or makes complete sense, even in moments when we seem to be at a breakthrough point in the story.

I’m not sure if the fault lies with the filmmaker or writers Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun, but the haphazard way this movie is put together not only drew me out of the drama but it took away most of the potentially scary moments. That’s a true shame because the wicked puppets are actually pretty great, even if the rest of the story drifts a bit too close to the plot of the far better Mama. Works like this are often made all the more frustrating because you can see the potential buried in the garbage that surrounds it. The plot seems unnecessarily complicated and crowded (although I never found it truly confusing), and characters seem to just drift in and out of this family’s lives when required rather than at a pace that feels more organic. The end result is cluttered, muddled and ultimately not especially interesting.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.