Experimental Reviews

Gilbert (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Xavier Wehrli

Writer: Xavier Wehrli

Cast: Xavier Wehrli, Ryan Wadsworth

Running time: 4mins

More than a year into the Indy Film Library project, we’ve been critiquing independent filmmakers long enough for some of our directors to return for a second crack at it. Some have been more successful than others – but usually it is still easy to see a common thread running between the projects.

Through all his directorial efforts, for example, Sam E. Flanagan’s people-management skills always stand out, as he always manages to get excellent performances from an amateur cast. Meanwhile, though the quality and subject of his films vary drastically, Christopher Beauchamp always champions earnest, heartfelt messages that lend his films a much-needed air of sincerity.

In each case, there are certain cinematic finger-prints standing all over the work of these filmmakers, making it clear who created them. Assuming this pattern to be a given then, imagine my surprise when I reached the end-credits of Gilbert. Wait, Xavier Wehrli made this?

That is not to say I do not think Wehrli has potential as a filmmaker. As I said two weeks ago while reviewing Roadkill, while there were a number of deficiencies that saw it receive a 2 star review, his early work at least showed he had heart and a conscience. “If he can build on that,” I concluded, “he will soon be making more compelling films than Roadkill.”

The thing is, I watch all submissions ‘blind’, doing my best to avoid director blurbs and cast lists until the end – and without that information, I could not have guessed I was looking at work from a returning filmmaker in the way I usually would, especially so soon after their first attempt. Gilbert has so many things which could have massively elevated Roadkill. There is a level of cinematographic creativity on display in its visual language, as well as an attention to detail and a restraint in building tension that could so easily be extracted from this experimental medium, and injected into a more conventional horror film.

Normally, then, I probably would have waited another month to review Gilbert – but I think there are some additional lessons for Wehrli to learn from this outing that contrast nicely with his first film. The follow-up to Roadkill features so much more creativity and atmosphere than its predecessor, and these will be crucial factors which play into Wehrli’s development as a filmmaker.

Part experimental short, part creepypasta, Gilbert tells the brief yet unnerving story of a young man losing control over his body as a result of a mysterious dental appointment. Voiced by Wehrli himself, he recounts to his therapist (Ryan Wadsworth) how he regained consciousness from the removal of his wisdom teeth, only to find he had apparently done something unspeakable to the titular Gilbert.

The story and script is a little ‘nuts-and-bolts’, and sometimes read rather like a story MrCreepyPasta  might narrate on YouTube – for example, an eerie scenario is inevitably always described as having something “off” about it in such stories, to the point it has long become a mechanism of self-parody. We don’t learn much about the characters, their lives or motives (partially necessitated by the run-time I suspect) while they don’t seem to exhibit a great emotional range, in spite of the horrific circumstances they are forced to meet under. Beyond its more pedestrian elements though, Gilbert is a fantastically creative short, bursting with visual metaphors and interwoven audio clues.

In terms of visual storytelling, while our narrator describes the dental procedure he was to undergo, a montage of gaping maws is paraded across the screen – from the on-the-nose image of a bloodied human mouth chewing on indiscernible viscera, to a snapping Hasbro Crocodile Dentist set, to the open door to an oven or a cat cage. Meanwhile, Wehrli’s spoken recollection takes on an almost hypnotic quality, lulling you into a wrongful sense of security that means you may miss important details in his story; like the fact he resented his pet, Gilbert, for being able to eat while he was forced to fast ahead of his operation, or his recollection that the dentist chair might have been stained with a certain red liquid.

Without being on-the-nose about it, Wehrli has established a set of psychological triggers which might or might not account for the story’s conclusion. Red balloons appear in the corner or the room, while the narrator tells us about the sensation of blood dripping upon him from the ceiling. We are then treated to the startlingly realistic splaying open of a rat (if you are squeamish, this film is not for you), which our narrator realises has been pinned to the ceiling over his bed.

In the end, we are left wondering exactly how and why the lead character did this – and whether it is in his character to do it again. At the same time, there are a number of cryptic and chilling layers of sound and vision in this film which warrant peeling back; something which necessitates repeat viewing wherever possible. I am happy to admit I watched Gilbert several times in my own hopes of getting to the bottom of it all.

Visually, the differences between Roadkill and Gilbert are night and day. Xavier Wehrli has shown here that he can be both cerebral and inventive in his cinematography – and if he can find a way of grafting the experimental tendencies of Gilbert to his next horror film, then he could really be onto something.

Are you a filmmaker looking for independent professional feedback like this? For honest, straightforward opinions and constructive insight into how you can improve your work, submit your work to Indy Film Library on FilmFreeway now.

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