While I enjoyed Peter Strickland's film, it doesn’t quite come together; a thematic mash-up of The Conversation and Repulsion but with a character so passive that the end result elicits a clinical respect for the filmcraft rather than a more embracing response.
It’s a beautifully shot and edited piece, which as well since it takes moviemaking as its premise. But it’s also distancing. It never really disturbs, because you never become that involved with the interior life of Toby Jones’ sound designer/editor. He travels to Italy to work on a lurid giallo movie in the mid-'70s, and the nature of the work (not at all like the beatific, rural documentaries he’s used to back home) gradually exacts a toll on his sanity.
The structure appeared pronouncedly divided into three acts, the first of which wears a strong, twisted sense of humour on its sleeve. Everything we learn about this horror movie invites derision. It’s called, ludicrously, The Equestrian Vortex, and concerns young women discovering witches’ putrid corpses in a “poultry tunnel”. When Jones asks what has become of the film’s horse-riding theme, he’s told “She’s just not riding any more”. His supervisor, played with a loathsome porno moustache by Cosimo Fusco, comments of one of the players. “She can’t even scream in Italian”. Another actor comes into the sound booth to play a “dangerously aroused goblin”. We never see any of the film, aside from the opening titles.
Throughout, Jones growing discomfort is subtly played, until the middle section, where it is clear that he is being manipulated along with most of the other employees (employees, barring the crucial fact that no one is being paid). There are lingering shots of decaying vegetables, used for the movie’s incessantly violent sound effects. The wear and tear on Jones’ interior, fragile psyche is growing, added to by a language and culture he doesn’t understand.
The last section’s splintering of his reality bears particular comparison to Polanski, but we’re much more distanced than in his films. Parallels have also been drawn with Barton Fink, but you’re involved with Fink and his neruoses. Jones can’t let anything out. We read the letters he receives from his mother, which gradually filter into his hallucinatory version of the film as he becomes caught up in it, but we don’t really care. Crucially, there is a point where he turns the pain he is feeling onto another innocent. But, in contrast , that person walks away, rejecting the cruelty that he absorbs.
Broadcast wrote the atmospheric score; it was completed posthumously after the death of the lead singer. Ultimately, the film creates an environment that is too artificial and calculated to become fully engrossing, but I did admire the precision of its making.