Harwood (review)

Overstepping Bounds

Making a movie is hard. It’s a much more complicated process than many people realize, and for all the bitching I do about how awful so many movies are, I have to grudgingly acknowledge that simply getting a movie — any movie — produced is quite an accomplishment. A friend of mine who has worked in the Hollywood TV/movie arena reminds me now and again that a credit — for, say, an actor or a writer or a costume designer — on even the crappiest movie is a thing to be desired… and in fact, being credited for work on a film like Saving Private Ryan is, to the minds of industry insiders, only barely more advantageous than being credited on, say, Mummy Bloodlust VI: The Reckoning (I made that up). Certainly, the gap in employability between the costume designers on Saving Private Ryan and Mummy Bloodlust is minuscule when compared with the gap between those who work on cheapie horror flicks and those who haven’t worked at all.
So, I am willing to cut a little slack when it comes to reviewing the kind of really low-budget films that most people never see because they screen only at film festivals and maybe on a college campus or two. These films are made by groups of friends, usually: Someone who went to film school directs, a cast of local community-theater actors star, and somebody’s Mom or the corner deli does the catering. Equipment is begged or borrowed — or, as in the case of the guys who made The Blair Witch Project, purchased from Circuit City and then returned once the film is in the can. Everyone works day jobs. These people make films for love, not for money or fame (though everyone who is cheeky enough to imagine a career in the movies naturally has some hope that these handsome rewards could manifest themselves someday). Motives here are the purest, and that counts for a lot.

Even with these considerations in mind, Harwood, which is just starting to make the festival rounds, isn’t a very good film. It wants to be a little Clockwork Orange, a little Manchurian Candidate, a little Twilight Zone, but neither the script nor the direction — both provided by Morgan Roberts — are up to the task of creating an effective psychological thriller on such a tiny budget. Harwood‘s big, overarching flaw is that it is way too ambitious for its modest roots.

The Lyne Process is a method, not elaborated on in detail, for “erasing the morals” and “rewiring the brains” of criminals and social deviants. The invention of Sarah Lyne (Joan Kerr), it is now being used in prisons, and as the film opens, we hear news reports of uprisings and unrest among convicts subjected to the treatment — the process has some unpleasant and unintended side effects. Sarah, though, has had to give up her medical practice as a condition of her divorce proceedings (a plot device that frankly makes no sense to me) and so is no longer involved in either continued research or the practical application of her process.

In the absence of anything better to do, Sarah has turned to what her daughter, Anna (Madeline McDonough-Maher), calls a “Deepak Chopra… act,” exploring all manner of New Agey stuff like dowsing, auras, and past-life regression. Anna is convinced that her mother’s sudden conversion from science to pseudoscience is all a fake, but Anna’s best friend, Simone (Julia Martin), assures her that Sarah is helping Simone keep her epileptic seizures under control, with an offshoot variant of the Lyne Process, in a way that no medication has ever done.

Meanwhile, Sally (Carley Vaughn), the usually drunk and obnoxious new wife to Sarah’s ex-husband, Gil (Tom White), starts making nasty phone calls to Sarah, accusing the scientist of killing Gil. That Gil is dead comes as a surprise, because we’ve neither seen nor heard anything about this previously. But from this point on, it’s impossible to continue discussing Harwood without revealing what Roberts intends as plot twists but which actually come as no surprise. When Sally turns up dead, it’s becomes obvious that Sarah has been brainwashing Simone into doing her dirty deeds — there isn’t a single red herring that might lead us to any other conclusion.

Much of what is frustrating about Harwood are the results of Roberts’s refusal to acknowledge the limitations of ultra-low-budget indie filmmaking. When you don’t have a lot of money to make a movie, you write small, with a tight, talky script that keeps your characters in a couple of locations, and you make them and what they’re talking about compelling. Kevin Smith’s Clerks is a terrific example, in which two guys hang around a convenience store and shoot the shit about things that are simultaneously inane and vitally important to them, like whether Luke Skywalker is a war criminal.

But Harwood wants to be a big-budget thriller, sending characters to too many unnecessary locations without giving the characters motivations for anything they do; nor does it offer explanations for the things they don’t do that they should. What makes Sarah decide she needs someone to commit crimes for her — and what motivates those crimes in the first place? Simone and Anna’s brother, Max (William Peder), are a couple as the movie opens; later, they are inexplicably no longer a couple, and their breakup seems to serve no need either for the characters or for the plot. When Anna and Max learn, a few days after they’ve been told that their mother is dead, that the body in the morgue is not in fact that of their mother, do they wonder where Mom (whom we know faked a suicide) actually is? No: they continue to act as if she’s dead.

Other script elements are simply sloppily written. Naming three important female characters “Sally,” “Sarah,” and “Simone” is invariably going to lead to confusion among the audience — it’s hard to keep track of who’s being discussed when the sounds of their names are so similar. Gil affectionately calls his ex “hon” during what we’re told are rancorous divorce proceedings. Anna, out driving alone in the country, stops to pick up a male hitchhiker, who turns out to know the scientific term for cannibalism among blood relations — not only is it improbable that a woman would allow such a creepy guy into her car in the middle of nowhere, but the plot information the hitchhiker is there to convey could have been gotten across in much more plausible ways (she stops for gas and encounters the guy, perhaps). But the most inexcusable plot point involves Sarah leaving clear evidence of her whereabouts when she’s supposedly going into hiding — in a drawer of the very desk at which she used another body to make it appear she killed herself, her daughter finds a letter with an address and a photo of the estate at which Sarah is secluded.

Flashy Hollywood suspense thrillers can sometimes appear to get away with such carelessness by distracting the audience with showy camerawork and special effects. But a style-over-substance approach doesn’t work in Harwood. Roberts tries to manufacture suspense in sequences in which neither the script nor the direction can muster it with the use of ominous music, but the music is the only thing offering us any clue that, say, Anna, walking in the woods, is being stalked and is about to be attacked. Roberts needs to learn how to film and intercut scenes — of a stalker and a victim, for example — to suggest the relationship between them.

It gives me no joy to be so unkind to what is obviously a labor of love for all involved. An A for effort, but Harwood is ultimately a static and uninvolving film.

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