Reviews Short Narrative

Bruised Reflections (2019) – 3 stars

Director: Sam E. Flanagan

Writer: Sharon Spink, Velton Lishke, Sam E. Flanagan

Cast: Sharon Spink, Sebastian Roberts, Laurence Campling, Lucy Marshall, Lauren Woods, Alixandra Clarke

Running time: 18mins

While feature projects are intensely complicated affairs – even for experience, well-financed filmmakers – shorts are arguably an even more unforgiving mistress. Over the course of a feature, filmmakers can find the space required for recovering from a couple of dodgy calls, but if they drop the ball during a short for even a second, it can greatly diminish the final product’s overall impact.

During the first year of Indy Film Library, I reviewed a number of films suffering from exactly this problem. We received so many technically skilled movies which were let down badly by a momentary lapse in concentration, a lack of patience, or a refusal filmmakers to adapt their ambition for their limited budget.

One such film was Too Far Gone by Sam E. Flanagan. The short featured some excellent pieces of filmmaking craft – not to mention some utterly gorgeous lighting – but this was almost entirely cancelled out by a lack of constraint with regards to the dialogue and story. The core theme of processing guilt was hurried through, and what would have worked much better as an ambiguous ending left us with literally no room to negotiate any meaning from the piece beyond its hasty A-to-B narrative.

Fortunately, Flanagan had the determination, self-belief and thickness of skin to submit a second example of his work. Drop Point was unmistakably a relative of Too Far Gone – featuring Spartan dialogue which largely served to push the plot forward in as little time as possible, as well as a pretty horrendous audio error which should not have survived the editing process – but it did also demonstrate meaningful growth on the Director’s part.

While the cinematography of Drop Point was still beautiful, and the acting once more on point, what really impressed was Flanagan’s restraint regarding the ending. The film’s climax showed a filmmaker who increasingly understands that you don’t always have to tie everything up in a neat bow, and sometimes, less is more. It was something that I sincerely hoped he would build upon.

Now, here we are in Indy Film Library’s second season of submissions, and Flanagan is back with a third film; Bruised Reflections. While I would like to say he has continued to progress in the vein of Drop Point, the truth is this is something of a stagnation; a step forward in some ways, and backward in others.

At this stage, it seems to go without saying that the actors in this latest production of Flanagan’s are on top form. It would be remiss of me to brush past this anymore as simply being good fortune on his part; in three productions the cast have seldom put a foot wrong, and the Director should in that case be commended for his ability to coax such strong performances out of his players.

Elsewhere, his choice of shot composition remains well-suited to the project. While his previous efforts allowed for more stylistic lighting and so on, this time Flanagan’s efforts reflect the more kitchen-sink nature of the plot. The camera work is often handheld to give it an organic fly-on-the wall feel to compliment the film’s naturalistic lighting, in major contrast to Too Far Gone in particular. On top of this, the score is rightly minimalist, and does not overbear the action on-screen, and the editing draws plot-points together nicely. Meanwhile, the audio quality is mercifully all on the same level this time – no more psychotic breaks with reality a la Drop Point.

All in all, the technical aspects of the film they would not look out of place in any top-level production on the British indy scene. The thing holding Bruised Reflections back is that Flanagan has allowed his latest production to back-slide in terms of its pacing and narrative discipline. The script he collaborated on with star Sharon Spink and Velton Lishke is mostly solid before the film enters its final act – when the big twist occurs.

In a Gone Girl like shift in tone, Elizabeth (Spink) suddenly transforms from a mousey victim of domestic abuse to a scheming tormentor of her late husband. The problem is, David Fincher’s film takes more than 150 minutes to explain how and why Amy Dunne does the things she does – while Gillian Flynn’s novel spends 432 pages fleshing this out.

Regardless of how problematic you might find the end result (and knowing what we know about Hollywood now, a film about a woman who fakes her own sexual assault to wreck someone else’s life is pretty troubling) Gone Girl does manage to make for a compelling thriller, complete with twists, turns and a level of moral ambiguity on behalf of each of its characters.

Unfortunately, Bruised Reflections suffers badly for the fact it does not foreshadow any of these changes. While it is chilling to see how formidably Spink’s performance turns on a sixpence – transforming in an instant from prey to predator – the sudden jolt of a transition does not make for a satisfactory viewing experience – rather it feels like the ending of a different film was grafted onto this movie.

That’s before we get into the logistics of how someone might or might not get away with painting their face to look like they had been punched, before using that as evidence to plea for self-defence in a murder trial. Again, this is something which, love it or loathe it, Gone Girl went into excruciating detail to mean we could suspend our disbelief on the matter – something Bruised Reflections does not give itself the time or space to do.

For the majority of its duration, Bruised Reflections is a solid piece of work – but ultimately it hinges on a conclusion that proves hard to reconcile with the rest of it. Sam E. Flanagan’s filmmaking continues to show signs of progress in terms of his technical competencies, but the area where he is in most need of improvement – narrative restraint – is where he remains stationary. This is not a worse effort than his previous work, but to take it to truly master his craft, he will need to develop greater patience as a storyteller.

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