In Caveat, the stunning and slightly sickening feature debut from writer-director Damian McCarthy, a man named Isaac (Jonathan French) wakes up with partial memory loss and is a bit adrift in his life until his landlord Barret (Ben Caplan) offers him something of a babysitting job that seems like easy money, something he desperately needs. Barret’s niece, Olga (Leila Sykes), lives alone in a rundown house on a small island off the Irish coast. She also has a host of mental problems that leave her largely catatonic in her room. The only catch to the job is that Isaac must wear a leather, belted harness attached to a chain that makes it impossible for him to go beyond the doorway to Olga’s room. He has free rein of the rest of the house, including the nightmare-fuel basement, but Isaac is effectively a captive. And then things get weird.
Although Isaac’s movement is limited, Olga can go anywhere she likes when she snaps out of her paralyzed state, and she frequently shows up in her protector’s room to converse in a direct and terse manner. Barret fed Isaac a story about Olga’s crazy mother running away and her father killing himself out of grief, but Olga has slightly different versions of these tales, including one that involves Isaac having been in this house before. As if this back and forth weren’t unsettling enough to Isaac, there are signs that the house is haunted—a sequence involving a creepy painting set me on edge and basically left me there for the rest of the movie—and things happen (and have happened) in that basement that ought not to be discussed.
Director McCarthy displays such a confident hand right out of the gate in terms of establishing tension and atmosphere that I’m almost concerned what levels of psychological torments he might thrust upon us in the future. Not surprisingly, Isaac finds a way out of the harness, which leads Olga to feel unsafe and brandish a crossbow, not so much for protection but more for hunting. And then there’s the never-seen fox roaming the grounds and letting out the occasional wail that sounds “like a teenage girl screaming.”
Caveat is about Isaac putting the pieces of this memory and his life back together before it’s too late. By the time the film wraps up, we’re looking at all three main characters differently than when we were introduced to them—in some case, dramatically different—and we’re not sure what’s scarier, the possible ghosts or the humans. But on a much deeper plane, the film is also about pain and how we process it differently. Some internalize their pain and it drives them insane, while others extend their own pain onto others. The film is sharp, beautifully acted, and built on a foundation that makes viewers feel ill at ease for as long as possible. Yeah, it’s a helluva debut.
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