Hurt people, hurt people.
I’m not sure where I first heard that phrase, but it came to mind repeatedly as I was watching Jack James’ 2015 indie film Malady. I’ve always considered that phrase, not as an excuse for hurts one levies on another, but as context. Pain and grief corrupt and linger. Their influence doesn’t just stop with the first person they infect.
From the film’s very title, you can surmise that there is a sickness afoot. In the film’s powerful opening scene, we watch as Holly (Roxy Bugler) copes with the death of her mother, Jill (Nicola Wright). With her dying words, Holly’s mother told her to find love and to be happy. This becomes Holly’s singular focus, which leads her to Matthew (Kemal Yildirim).
There are many fantastic choices in this opening scene, but maybe the best is to begin the story with Holly and her mother. As the film continues, the story will go elsewhere. But we must never forget where things began. Holly’s relationship to her mother hangs over the film as much as any other relationship we will see on screen.
We quickly see Holly and Matthew begin a relationship of their own. It is tender and seems to be built upon strong initial bonds. However, Matthew soon finds that his own mother, Lorelai (Jill Connick), is ill. Still reeling from her own grief, Holly implores Matthew to go and care for his mother while he still can. She even says that she will join him.
From the time they reach the house where Matthew’s mother lives, things begin to take a darker turn. Oddly enough, I watched this film around the same time I re-watched Meet the Parents. In a weird, jarring kind of way, I think these two films would make for an interesting double showing. Where Meet the Parents goes for the humor in the sometimes awkward interactions with your significant other’s parents, Malady looks for the horror.
It is clear that Lorelai does not care for Holly. It does not matter to her that her son presumably loves Holly. It doesn’t even matter to her that Holly lovingly cares for her in her sickness. There is something bubbling underneath the surface that forges a palpable tension between the two women.
As far as technical elements go, I must specifically praise the cinematography and the score. The film’s cinematography is incredible throughout, especially considering that James worked as not only the director, but the producer, writer, editor AND director of photography on this film. There is one shot near the end of a close-up on Matthew’s eye that is absolutely incredible. It was my favorite shot in the entire film. The handheld camerawork, too, adds to the film’s disjointed feeling.
The score by Bradley Oliver-White really caught me off guard. It gives the usual stringed horror cues, but they often are not paid off in the way we might expect. Even more than that, this is a score that knows when to recede and let silence or ambient noise take center stage. I really appreciate that in a film, as so many of today’s films choose to barrage moments with music that would have been more powerful with silence.
Bugler gives the film’s best acting performance as Holly. She carries the film with her ability to run the gamut of the character’s emotions. She finds joy and pain in Holly’s struggle. The supporting performances are fine, but they are not quite as fully-realized, in my opinion. It is Holly with whom the audience empathizes and resonates. She is our window into this dark world.
Much of the film is quiet and evenly-paced, but the closing cranks up the cringes, both visually and audibly. It brings us to the final moment where we are left to consider what we’ve seen in silence. What we’ve seen is an arresting piece of cinema with a bold vision. While I’m not sure the film ultimately achieves its ambitious goals, there is no doubt that James is a quality film talent.
This film’s ideas about pain, grief and their impact on those around us (especially when kept inside ourselves and our family) are powerful. There were moments, especially near the end, where I could not hold my gaze on the film for the sheer darkness and cringe-inducing audacity. That palpable darkness was enough to keep me at arm’s length. However, I cannot deny the truth in this film.
Pain and grief linger. If they are left to fester, they will corrupt until they are through.