Scalene, the new thriller from co-writer/director Zack Parker, made me extremely uncomfortable from start to finish--but not in the way he'd intended, I'm sure. Told in a reverse/double-back narrative style that recalls Memento and Tarantino, the film centers on the relationship between a frumpy, put-upon mother; her mentally challenged adult son; and the comely college student who takes a job as his caregiver. It's fitting that two-thirds of the movie works, considering its theme of triangulation; the challenge is wading through the first thirty-two of these weird ninety-six minutes to get to the good stuff.
I should kick off the review proper with a confession: I laughed a lot at the material involving the mentally challenged son. There's nothing funny about people with disabilities in the real world, but it takes a deft writing/directing/acting team to keep fictitious portrayals of them from straying into bad comedy. The problem here is that we meet Jakob (Adam Scarimbolo) towards the end of his story. He's a twenty-six-year-old man who doesn't speak; his bouts of distraction and nervous shaking give him the appearance of a cat constantly hunting flies.
Yet, he has a girlfriend--who he's been accused of sexually assaulting. As officers of the state drag him off to an institution, he screams and whines and flails about, as his mother, Janice (Margo Martindale) yells in horror. It's an over-the-top scene of over-the-top emotions that is uncomfortably hilarious, thanks to its utter lack of context. Having now seen the whole movie, I understand what Parker and co-writer Brandon Owens were going for, but this is a rare case of backwards storytelling hurting a narrative instead of enhancing it.
You see, even the girlfriend thing isn't true. Jakob allegedly raped his caregiver, Paige (Hanna Hall), a detail that would have been nice to discover in due time. Instead, I sat for the first twenty minutes or so wondering, "No, seriously, how did this guy get a girlfriend?"
And, guess what? The rape is also suspect. Look, there's a big difference between building a mystery whose answer is a giant carpet yank for the audience at the end, and yanking that carpet every step of the way, denying viewers a sure footing. One is a sure-fire path to blowing minds; the other is an invitation to scope out the nearest available exit.
Scalene's first half-hour is a mess, particularly the opening scene, which sees Janice showing up to Paige's home with a gun. They fight clumsily* and move throughout the house. Hall plays getting shot in the shoulder as if Paige is annoyed by a cramp that caused her to smear ketchup on her favorite shirt. The struggle ends with Janice tumbling down some stairs and Paige calling the cops. Of course, she turns around to hang up the phone and gets socked in the face by her not-dead attacker--which leads into the "Well, how did I get here?" portion of the story.
As we rewind, Janice and Jakob's story comes into greater focus; she's an insecure and thoroughly unpleasant woman who's tiptoeing into the dating scene (Jakob's father split years ago, sparing his family an abusive personality and the audience a terrible performance); he's her fitful source of frustration, and also her greatest love--a combination that usually results in verbal and physical abuse followed by terms of endearment. When Janice brings home a seemingly nice man, Jakob runs him off with a crazy freak-out.**
In the aftermath of this episode, we learn Jakob's origin story. No, he wasn't born with his disability. He fried a large chunk of his brain by huffing chemicals in junior high. The inciting incident is shown in a hilariously awkward flashback that begins with Jakob holding a towel up to his face, which becomes the towel that he was holding on the day he lost his marbles.
The transitional washcloth makes zero sense, and is an unwelcome bit of surrealism that takes us into Jakob's mind; I'm all for bizarre imagery, but this feels plain forced, an obvious ploy by Parker and company to trick-out a movie whose screenplay needs a lot of help. I would have gladly given up the cute swapping out of Janice for Jakob's doctor and all the muffled, drowning sound effects if it meant gaining coherence in the main plot threads.
But, no, the story meanders until Paige's introduction. It's here that Scalene gets interesting, and the middle forty-five minutes of this movie are the only reason I highly recommend it. Hall is note-perfect as the soon-to-be college grad who lives at home with her wealthy parents and enjoys a conflict-free life. When Paige meets Jakob and Janice, she's stunned at the mother's passive-aggressive (then aggressive-aggressive) behavior. Over time, she grows to love Jakob, platonically, and must cope with her own cowardly limitations when it comes to reporting his abuse.
Watching Hall and Martindale's tense games of emotional cat-and-mouse, I finally understood why some of my friends can't watch TV shows like The Office: they complain that the uncomfortability gives them the creeps; I'd always shrugged the notion off as ridiculous, until I saw these women get so raw that I felt like I was eavesdropping on my parents arguing. It's a drastic contrast to earlier in the film, where they were required to re-enact the climax to Fatal Attraction, which is obviously outside their wheelhouses. This stretch of the movie is also where Scarimbolo shines, bringing touching nuances to a character that had been nothing but a kooky spaz for so long.
Unfortunately, the movie must wind its way back to the beginning (or, you know, the end), and that means setting up a scenario by which Jakob is hauled away and Janice tries to kill Paige. If you want to avoid spoilers, I suggest backing away now and returning after you've watched the film.
Paige decides that the least complicated way to have Jakob safely removed from Janice's care is to fake being raped by him. One afternoon, while Janice is out on a date, Paige jerks Jakob off and rubs his semen into her crotch. She then punches herself in the chest and face, rips her clothes, and then forces Jakob to take off his shirt so she can administer some fake "attack" scratches. The plan works perfectly, allowing her to rest easy in the knowledge that she'd broken up a family and possibly caused irrevocable psychic damage to an already fragile mind--all so she wouldn't have to complete an anonymous phone call to Family Protective Services.
But not as unbelievable as the ending, which I was invested in only because I wanted to see what would become of Paige, following Janice's surprise assault. I'm still waiting. You see, in another brilliant bending of perception, Parker and Owens ditch that angle completely. Janice simply dies (we're led to believe) at the bottom of the stairs. I can only assume that the attack was a death's-door revenge fantasy on her part or...or something. Either way, Scalene ends with what I can only describe as a grand cheat.
You may wonder how I can recommend such an inconsistent chore. The answer is simple: Scalene may be a wreck, but it's an infinitely interesting one. The quality ebbs and flows as much as the story does, with as many attendant frustrating twists as any three Christopher Nolan films. This is a textbook example of too much gimmickry and bogus-reveal suspense, a cautionary tale that's enjoyable on levels both ironic and not. I laughed, I winced, I rolled my eyes--often within the same scene. That kind of consistently intriguing badness is magical, no matter how you look at it.
*The filmmakers' attempt at creating "natural" awkwardness comes off as a dress rehearsal. As the women rolled around on the floor, I kept waiting for Martindale to say, "Now, Hanna, this'll be much more intense when Zack calls 'Action', but you're gonna be okay."
**Granted, this is mostly Charles' fault; given his poor judgment in telling a developmentally arrested kid a story about repeatedly shooting cattle on the side of the road, I'd say Janice is better off without him.