For those that aren’t familiar with director Lucky McKee’s work, the man is a master of uncomfortable cinema. Having played at Cinepocalypse this past weekend, his new film, Kindred Spirits, only furthers the fact…
…I’ve long been a fan of McKee since his debut film, May. Lucky has a rare ability to consistently make the audience squirm with deeply personal moments expressed through disturbed characters who have been shaped by the world around them. In Kindred Spirits, directed by McKee and written by Chris Sivertson (All Cheerleaders Die), we meet angsty teen Nicole (Sasha Frolova), in constant contention with her young, single mother, Chloe (Thora Birch), who is just trying to figure out how to raise her daughter. When Chloe’s sister, Sadie (Caitlin Stasey) arrives back in town after ten years or so, Nicole is thrilled to see her favorite aunt. But Sadie isn’t quite herself these days. In fact, she’s beginning to act a lot like Nicole…
Few horror directors portray personal grief and anger as well as McKee, and the three women starring in Kindred Spirits are shining examples of that. Nicole, feeling as if her mother sees her as a mistake, pushes her away and lashes out at the world, even socking a bully right in the face before the bully even says a word to her. Meanwhile, Chloe feels lost, especially with the secret that she is sleeping with Alex (Macon Blair), the father of Nicole’s best friend, Shay (Shonagh Smith). The situation is ripe for drama, with characters whom we understand and feel for in their predicaments. All except for the mysterious Sadie.
Played with a graceful eeriness, Stasey is spectacular as Sadie. Stasey oozes manipulative energy, going from cool aunt to teen girl to an enraged maniac, all at the drop of a hat and with frightening ease. McKee presents Sadie and Nicole as the kindred spirits of the title, two women who are alike in so many ways they practically are each other, but as we learn, Sadie’s spirit is closer to that of Kathy Bates in Misery than it is of any sane person. All three actresses are wonderful, but Stasey elevates Kindred Spirits to another level, with each new twist of her character becoming more and more shocking as the film goes on. Like most of McKee’s films, it’s simply amazing how much his direction and Stasey’s performance endear us to Sadie as this funny, quirky aunt, before pulling the rug out from under us and revealing what she truly is.
Kindred Spirits builds a subtle mystery throughout, revolving around Sadie and the question, what the hell is wrong with her? Like I mentioned, McKee is a master of awkward cinema, and the real draw of Kindred Spirits is in seeing how far Sadie will go to get what she wants. Having someone tell you they love you for the first time and freak out over saying it can be endearing, but it’s a hell of a lot more chilling when it’s coming from Sadie talking to a boy half her age who she just met at a party, the first peek into her troubled mind. If you prefer your terror to be light and of the “boo” variety, this film may not be for you. Kindred Spirits is the kind of film that ties your gut into a knot and dares you to enter the mind of a deranged person. And though there is very little gore in the film, the consequences of that derangement are violent and gruesome, including one of the nastiest deaths you’ll see in cinema all year.
True to your average McKee film, Sadie is a psychological tornado, and Kindred Spirits is a film all about self-destruction as these three women must cope with cracking sanities and revealing secrets. But as ugly as that all may sound, Kindred Spirits is actually a beautiful film, presented with a magical, dark fairy-tale aesthetic, thanks to some excellent work from cinematographer Chris Heinrich. Kindred Spirits channels elements of “Snow White”, complete with murder, deception, and a little wicked step-mother in Sadie. Certain scenes are bright and colorful, while darker moments are shown with a tint of mustards and browns, giving Kindred Spirits a rich texture that emphasizes the ugliness of the story.
Despite superb performances and outstanding direction by McKee, the one key thing missing in Kindred Spirits that seriously hurts the film is the battle we keep hoping to see played out through the characters. Sadie’s psychotic nature is kept from others for so long, that by the time anyone realizes, the film is essentially over, without allowing us to live in that conflict between the three women. Imagine The Good Son, but if Elijah Wood didn’t realize Macaulay Culkin was a bad kid until the very end. Much of the conflict would be erased from that film, and while it’s not quite the same here, the effect is similar. The reason behind Sadie’s mental break also remains unclear. Why, after all of the years of being loved by Chloe and Nicole has she decided to turn against them? Kindred Spirits doesn’t really have a solid answer, which is sometimes true to life, but leaves her character feeling without motivation in the film.
McKee has yet to make a movie I don’t like. Kindred Spirits contains some brilliant performances and awkward tension that should get hardened filmgoers squirming. But without a clear motivation for Sadie and an ending that goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, Kindred Spirits is like fishing: riveting suspense as you reel it in, only to discover nothing but an empty hook, robbed of the meaningful victory you were hoping for. Regardless, it’s a hell of a ride.
By Matt Konopka