Feature Narrative Reviews

The Sanctuary (2020) – 2 stars

Director: Allen Kool

Writer: Robin E. Crozier

Cast: Lawrene Denkers, Dylen Michael Guiry, Rick Amsbury, John-Riley O’Handley, Scott Yallop, Drew Riedstra, Christina Marouchou, Jacob Collier, James M. Jenkinson  

Running time: 1hr 40mins

One of the go-to tips teachers throw at students in early creative writing classes is that when coming up with a story, they should start at the end, and work backwards. In The Sanctuary, director Allen Kool and writer Robin E. Crozier demonstrate both the virtues and limitations of that advice – as they seem to have come up with fabulous idea for an ending, before working their way back to a decreasingly effective beginning.

Starting with the positives, The Sanctuary is built around an undeniably interesting concept – one which would have flourished in a production with the style and imagination that characterises indy cinema at its best. However, while watching the film as it is, the question that came to mind for your reviewer was, “if an indy film regurgitates almost every tired trope and stereotype of a mainstream genre, how is it not simply a piece of failed mainstream cinema?”

The film opens with a shot of a small town approached by river. At first, the viewer, is led to think this is being filmed from a boat but we pass over a weir and realise – hang on, this is a drone shot. Unfortunately, the use technology is the most interesting part of the opening; the riverine scenery is unexceptional the scene plods along for an eternity. We later learn from the credits that the small town is St Mary’s, Ontario but, presumably due to the producer’s desire to target a wide audience, the conceit is that the action takes place in small-town USA.

St Mary’s has the type of granite 19th century Canadian municipal architecture with Celtic flourishes that evokes a New World Caledonia – there is even a Scottish theme that links the movie’s main protagonists. We cut to a bonfire with a group of healthy white middle-class adolescents listening to one of their number finishing telling a tale. They turn expectantly to ‘Grandpa’ and ask him for a story. Grandpa is Scottish, straight out of John Buchan. He has a bushy grey beard (neatly cut), tweed cap, twinkly eyes, and smokes a pipe. Essentially a cartoon – he even begins his story with ‘lads and lassies’. Serving as the framing device for the unfolding drama, he makes further appearances as the narrator throughout the film – both to provide an intimation of the twist, and later a summary and explanation of it.

The action of Grandpa’s story opens with an argument between young lovers. The man (face covered by a hoody) has found a card in the woman’s room with another man’s name and phone number on it. Following the tired dictates of a genre where women are so often controlled by the threat of male violence, the man naturally takes a knife and brutally murders the woman he apparently loved. Returning to the suggestion that this film might be filled with tired tropes, the genre the film so heartily apes is horror, and the cinematic de rigueur in question is the brutal stabbing to death of a young woman.

We cut to the local sheriff’s office. We hear over the office radio that the killer has been arrested and we see the man in the hoody handcuffed on a bench. The sheriff, his two deputies and the office administrator (in-keeping with the conservative social norms, it is a woman – and a BAME woman at that) are discussing the case. What follows is probably one of the worst acted and worst realised police procedural scenes that I have ever encountered.

The most egregious offender is Jacob Collier as the younger deputy, who gloats in the manner of a small boy over the ‘slasher’ being ‘fried.’ The director’s apparent intent is to contrast this distasteful glee against the worldly-wise cops required by the genre but the acting from sheriff Drew Riedstra and older deputy Scott Yallop (sporting one of the most catastrophic hairstyles ever worn by a human being) is so poor that it appears the coercive power of the state is in the hands of a bunch of buffoons.

Mercifully, the bizarre scene ends with the sheriff taking the murderer, accompanied by an old-lag serial offender, off to the penitentiary in a patrol car. We glimpse the penitentiary in the distance but, in an intervention by the Fates, it is unclear, but I think a tree falls on the patrol car, killing the sheriff. The killer, we later learn is called Wade, finds the key to the handcuffs and to highlight his killer credentials snaps the neck off the old-lag. We are off and running – a Killer on the Run.

Wade runs across the frozen countryside which gives the director more opportunities for otiose drone shots. We also have some CGI lightning and thunder, presumably to underline Wade’s demonic nature. Night falls, Wade sees the lights of a homestead. In an excruciatingly drawn-out sequence, we see Wade reconnoitring the place in the darkness. This is accompanied by a barrage of ominous music to evoke a Cape Fear atmosphere, but the sequence goes on for such a length any tension is dissipated.

Wade is surprised by a suspicious old man with a rifle who prods him inside. We meet the old man’s wife who takes a shine to Wade, who has finally dropped his hoody. She serves a meal and overcomes her husband’s suspicions of Wade. Wade has found the sanctuary of the title.

I have reservations over the casting of this farm couple: Edna and Harley. For some reason (cost of insurance, older actors needing more frequent toilet breaks?), the director casts two younger actors, Lawrene Denkers and Rick Amsbury. The prosthetic makeup works well enough – they look aged – but the problem is when the actors move – in trying to evoke the tentative movements of geriatrics they resemble marionettes. Personally, I felt the decision was a cop out, there are plenty of actors in their 80s eager to work – a bolder director would have taken the opportunity, however inconvenient they might have found working with the elderly.

We then get a long scene setting the growing relationship between the couple and Dale – also bringing the Scottish back to the fore. When Dale spots a motto in the house which reads ‘It’s not over…it’ll never be over,’ Edna explains that this refers to remembrance of some murderous English act of genocide perpetrated against her Scottish ancestors in which the women were burned alive. Kool, not shy of illustrating violence against women, helpfully gives us a CGI of a woman being burnt alive.

Even after we cut to Grandpa with his thoughts on evil and innocence, however, the scene is not done – and instead seems to last an eternity. Edna and Harley proceed to voice every imaginable cliché about rural life and ageing while the soundtrack swells to multiple climaxes to underline the profundity of each statement. I felt honestly sorry for Flora Cheng, the music’s composer, because her work seems reasonably competent with some good orchestration, but here it was used with the subtlety and precision of a blunderbuss.

Dylen Michael Guiry does a reasonable job as Wade, although the part involves only oleaginous sycophancy to Edna, the occasional homicidal chuckle, and unprovoked fits of range. Trapping us with a one-dimensional killer and two puppets spouting platitudes, Kool certainly evokes claustrophobia, and I was often left hoping that either Harley with his rifle or Wade with a stolen gun would end our misery. Sadly, Wade does not have the competence of a Charlie Starkweather – but eventually, proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of the new sheriff in town (John-Riley O’Handley).

With the introduction of O’Handley the film mercifully picks up some speed. O’Handley is a decent actor and brings some much-needed credibility to the police procedural. The final section of the film has some dramatic tension, and the twist is well realised – your reviewer did not, despite Grandpa’s forebodings, spot it coming. But along the way we have some problems.

As has already been established, Kool is drawn irrepressibly toward stereotypical storytelling, and so of course the new sheriff from the big city is a divorcee, with children who he loves dearly and misses so. While the creators might have felt this gave him some ‘interesting’ contrast or common ground with Wade – both having been ‘wronged’ by women in their life, but ended up on different ends of the law – it is a casually sexist trope, and one we have seen this a million times before. It would have been more interesting to see a cop who is in a happy, fulfilled relationship, gay or straight, take on this role.

While the new sheriff’s presumed sexual availability does give scope for some gruesome male bonding with the finely coiffured deputy, and some simply weird interactions with the women of the town, it is not the kind of thing the film required to add some sorely missed gravitas. These strange interactions do lead to arguably the most memorable moment however – as, in perhaps the only self-aware scene of the film, one of the women (Christina Marouchou) protests at her treatment by the men, claiming you’re treating me as a cliché. The moment contrasts with the prior depiction of small-town life – one of arch condescension – and almost pushes it into glorious parody, as if John Waters had been re-making It’s a Wonderful Life.

While it would not be useful to lay blame at any one door – filmmaking is always a collaborative effort – there are clearly some weak links here. Kool himself is an experienced producer; the project appears to be well-funded and he has assembled a competent team; the cinematography by David O’Keefe is first rate with some excellent interior shots of the house as sanctuary; and Andrew C. Brown does an accomplished job as editor. However, Crozier’s script seems to be the root of much of the film’s shortcomings – as well as Kool’s reluctance to push for re-writes in its most hackneyed and threadbare moments.

This comes to a head at a crucial stage in the work. In order for the much-awaited twist to have validity, the long conversation between Edna and Harvey which discusses the ramifications of their response to the sheriff’s questioning about Wade would have to be bullshit. In effect, this means the viewer is being messed around, and nobody enjoys that.

During the arduous task of watching this movie, I wondered what an indy director not bound to following genre stereotypes would have made of the original idea. A short of twenty minutes or so without the woeful police procedural and small-town fluff could have maybe resulted in a meaningful, impactful movie. Looking at Kool’s website, it seems he has a whole batch of similar offerings to let loose on the world – so maybe the short format would not work for him as he is aiming for a particular market – presumably pay per view TV in the USA and beyond. Thinking of the white, middle class kids around the bonfire listening in awe to Grandpa as Kool’s target audience, it saddened me to realise that another movie will ask them to think in clichés, and to stereotype the people they meet in life. In answer to our original question, yes indy cinema really can be just another label for a flawed attempt at mainstream cinema.

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