Ed Gass-Donnelly’s got style and atmosphere to burn, that’s for sure. In the opening moments of his new elegiac horror-thriller Lavender, we track into a frozen tableau of police investigating a grim crime scene in a rustic farmhouse. The cops hover like statues over sheet-draped bodies as the camera glides between them, coming to rest on a petrified girl slumped against a bedroom wall, clutching a bloody razor. As she stares blankly into us, we wonder, is this girl a killer? Why would she do such terrible things?
The grisly mystery’s left in the past and we pick up with Jane (Abbie Cornish), a photographer specializing in pics of old and abandoned farmhouses. Her latest country find unlocks something long buried in her mind, and she starts having strange visual flashes. Distracted, she ends up in a tumbling car accident and winds up hospitalized. The crash has given her amnesia, and seemingly aggravated an old brain trauma from her childhood. Her husband Alan (Diego Klattenhoff) struggles to be sympathetic, but he and their young daughter Alice (Lola Flanery) don’t really get what’s going on with her. That job falls to a sympathetic psychiatrist at the hospital, played by an understated Justin Long. Things start to get weird as strange boxes begin appearing on her doorstep, containing peculiar keepsakes, like an old metal toy jack. A return to the house leads to an encounter with her estranged uncle (Dermot Mulroney), and the mystery deepens.
Except that its contours are pretty clear. Jane is the girl from the film’s opening, and recovering her memory is reopening the buried trauma of her family’s murder. The film’s first half is most successful, expressive and deploying its eerie atmosphere with confident, albeit predictable skill. The genre tropes grow ever more familiar as it proceeds, with questionable ghosts or memory visions, Jane getting lost in a maze of hay bales, and Jane running through an endless array of wind-whipped sheets. That sounds like a harsh litany of clichés, because really most of the movie works quite well. The performers are all strong, especially Cornish’s flustered but determined Jane. Gass-Donnelly’s camerawork is occasionally extravagant, but usually hangs back to let the scenes unfold and the tension build. Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson’s score is an unsettling wash of ambient bass burps and skronking strings that on my screener at least was too loud in the mix but sets a constant creepy mood. And the last act that Gass-Donnelly has cooked up with his writing partner Colin Frizzell contains a couple of genuinely satisfying twists.
The Canadian director’s been bubbling up for awhile, his debut feature This Beautiful City (2007) followed by Small Town Murder Songs (2010) and The Last Exorcism Part II (2013). Lavender isn’t the breakthrough film to put Gass-Donnelly on the next level, but it’s a strong showcase for a growing talent.
Lavender opens at Cineplex Theatres across Canada today, and has played many festivals including Tribeca, Shanghai and Torino.