For several years now, the X-Men franchise (see: ‘Farewell to the X-Men’) has been one of Marvel Comics’ most lucrative properties. Tapping into universal themes of self-discovery, family and prejudice, the X-Men’s message urges us to celebrate our differences and embrace the unique. It’s a potent hook, providing hope to countless outsiders who one day, too, would find a place to belong.
In fact, their message was so well-received, there have been several cinematic attempts to copy the X-Men’s success over the years - some good (‘Fast Color’), a few bad (‘Push’), others just plain abysmal (‘The Darkest Minds’). The latest addition is ‘Freaks’, directed, written, and produced by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein.
The film begins with a father (Emile Hirsch, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’) and daughter Chloe (Lexy Kolker) hiding in a house. Dad tells his daughter they can’t go outside because people want to kill them. Whether or not that’s true - at least at the start - is up for debate, and the mystery sets the tone for what’s to come. Like Thomasin McKenzie's character Tom in Debra Granik's 'Leave No Trace', Chloe craves normalcy and dislikes the isolation and ambiguity of her living situation. Tempted by a creepy ice-cream truck driven by an old man named Mr Snowcone (Bruce Dern, ‘Chappaquiddick’), the young girl decides to go outside against her father’s wishes and, in doing so, sets off a chain reaction with potentially world-shaking consequences.
‘Freaks’ never makes it too on-the-nose in regard to what is going on. For the first half an hour, the picture works intuitively, letting you try to figure things out on your own while focusing on what’s going on in Dad and Chloe's gloomy house, as that’s what’s really important. It’s not unlike how the Duffer Brothers’ ‘Hidden’ and Grant Sputore’s ‘I Am Mother’ both had an apocalypse raging outside, but treated the small-scale drama going on inside a bunker as the fascinating focal point. Like the mentality of John Goodman’s character, Howard, in ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’, this is a situation of people locking themselves in rather than out. They’re worried about the dangers of the outside, with these locks acting as protection rather than a means of keeping them captive. It’s exploring epic storytelling through minimalism, which is a great tool when done right.
On the topic of ‘I Am Mother’ and other claustrophobic pictures, it’s natural to explore how ‘Freaks’ does things differently. In this case, the film’s core dynamic is made up of a father, daughter, and (eventually) Mr Snowcone, whereas 2015’s ‘Room’ is simply a mother and son, and ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ offers up a male and female stranger plus their captor. In all of these pictures, but particularly in ‘Freaks’, the group’s morale and bond is fundamental. It’s a testament to the idea of the power of family and how anything can be tolerable if you’re with people who love you.
Hirsch channels some of Bill Paxton’s paranoid father in ‘Frailty’ - it's not clear at first if there are actually dangers outside as Dad believes, if there is something psychologically wrong with him, or whether he’s just watched Brian De Palma’s sci-fi horror-thriller ‘The Fury’ one too many times. As Chloe, Kolker has an impressive range, flipping from childish wonder through to preternatural self-possession and anger. We see her desperation for everything from a cone of ice-cream to friendship with other children. Bruce Dern is always hard to ignore (he tends to bring a bit of that snarky attitude to bear and leaves you wondering just how much he’s got left in the tank, so to speak) and gives an unsettling performance as Mr Snowcone.
The entire film is predicated on the dangers of the outside and the rules that govern this family to keep them safe, but unsurprisingly, things are quite different on the outside with this new direction fuelling a sizeable portion of the film.
After spending a substantial amount of time wallowing in its claustrophobia, the film throws science fiction into the mix, morphing into something that shares the same mutant DNA as Jeff Nichols’ ‘Midnight Special’ (itself essentially a homage to both ‘E.T.’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’). Of course, with such a concept-heavy film, things do eventually move outside of the hiding spot with a rather seismic paradigm shift going on in the process. The entire film is predicated on the dangers of the outside and the rules that govern this family to keep them safe, but unsurprisingly, things are quite different on the outside with this new direction fuelling a sizeable portion of the film.
Unfortunately, ‘Freaks’ loses a chunk of its goodwill with its cinematography.
If you're watching this movie with someone for the first time and want to irritate the fuck out of them, just say, “pay attention to how often the screen is tilted.” The definition of a Dutch angle is "a camera shot in which the camera has been rotated relative to the horizon or vertical lines in the shot. The primary use of such angles is to cause a sense of unease or disorientation for the viewer." Because of this, it’s not the most enjoyable camera angle to watch. ‘Freaks’ is filled to the brim with these oblique and canted angles, perhaps to force the audience into a disturbed child’s perspective. There is also wobbly hand-held camera work, ice cream truck wheel POV shots and other annoying techniques that prevents you from engaging with this “world”, even while the film asks you to walk further in this family’s shoes. ‘Freaks’ is clearly limited by its minuscule budget (the special effects are used sparingly), which is likely why the action takes place in a series of rooms and strangely deserted outdoor locations.
This movie shows the work of growing filmmakers who are clearly only getting started - ‘Freaks’ might not be a perfect film, but it’s one that plays with a couple of themes ahead of the curve while still subverting the norm in the process.