War is Hell. Yet afterwards, we expect soldiers to return to normal life as if they haven’t been to Hell and back. As if they can just un-see what they have. Undo what they’ve done. But life doesn’t work that way. And in writer/director Ted Geoghegan’s latest, Brooklyn 45, the filmmaker dredges up the haunting pain of those ghosts of war in a chilling tale as tense as it is emotionally eviscerating.
Set during a cold, Brooklyn night on December 27th, 1945, Brooklyn 45 follows a gathering of old war buddies at the home of Lt. Col. Clive Hockstatter (the incomparable Larry Fessenden). The evening starts out warm enough, until Clive reveals he has gathered them for a séance in an effort to reach his recently deceased wife. When contact goes awry and they find themselves trapped in a room with the supernatural, the friends discover they don’t know the ghosts of each other’s past as well as they thought.
The thing to understand about Brooklyn 45 before sitting down to watch it is that this is not a ghost story. At least, not a traditional one. While watching, I found myself thinking of Crimson Peak’s Edith Cushing and her words, “it’s more a story with a ghost in it.” A film told in real-time which takes the classic “séance scene” in haunters and makes it the whole movie, Brooklyn 45 is more a tense drama with a ghost in it than something akin to The Conjuring. Melancholic. Angry. Heartbreaking. Geoghegan’s latest is an emotional journey through the souls of the damned and the consequential ghosts of war which stick with the survivors long after the last shot has been rung.
Brooklyn 45 collects a group of tormented people during that time of year when internal screams seem to be at their loudest. Aside from Hockstatter, there’s ex-interrogator, “Marla the Merciless,” (Anne Ramsay). Hardass Mjr. Paul DiFranco (Ezra Buzzington). And accused war criminal, Mjr. Archibald Stanton (Jeremy Holm). All are characters fresh off the battlefield with psychological wounds that have not yet nor will ever close. A contained, character-driven story heavy on the dialogue, Brooklyn 45 rests on the shoulders of its more than capable cast, all of whom deliver complex performances that hook into the audience and never let go. All of these people have done terrible things, yet Geoghegan treats them not as monsters but pained individuals walking the fine line of responsibility between following orders and committing the deed. Are you a bad person if you did something terrible during war because you were ordered to? These are the sorts of questions posed all throughout, leading to emotional surprises and unexpected turns in the characters that argues we can’t know even our closest friends if we don’t hear their pain.
With other characters such as Marla’s husband, Bob (Ron E. Rains), who stayed home during the war, and another I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, Brooklyn 45 doesn’t just claw into the wounds of war’s soldiers, but the infected cuts of a nation still reeling from the effects of incomprehensible grief and anger. “The war is over” gets repeated again and again and again, but it isn’t for anyone. Geoghegan’s film is about the battles that happen after, the reconciliation of sins and the residual anger or distrust which continues to divide, resulting in a bottle film tossed in a boiling pot of ectoplasm. Riveting dialogue and blistering tension drag the viewer all the way off their chair. Who in this hellish scenario can be trusted, especially with their minds deteriorating at the sight of things they can’t possibly explain?
Genre fans thinking Brooklyn 45 is all heart and no horror, don’t worry. There’s plenty terror of the mental, physical, and metaphysical variety to go around.
Between their work together on We Are Still Here and now Brooklyn 45, I’m convinced that Ted Geoghegan and Larry Fessenden are masters of séance horror. Geoghegan’s direction and Fessenden’s impossible-to-look-away-from performance strike terror on a level with the best of these moments in the annals of the genre. Goosebump popping sound design and Ted’s penchant for gruesome gore conjure all kinds of shocking scares that’ll leave some viewers jaws hanging. Blitz//Berlin’s unsettling score works as the perfect companion to Robert Patrick Stern’s cinematography which creeps and floats around the room like a curious spirit. Even Sarah Sharp’s production design has its way of getting under the skin, mixing old photographs with oozy green and yellow aesthetics that invoke images of graveyard rot. The supernatural takes a backseat to distrustful suspense between the characters, but when it pops up, it pops up like that giant head in Poltergeist, screeching and horrible and frightening.
Because this is a largely one-location film reliant on dialogue, Brooklyn 45 can feel like it’s running in circles (the amount of times a certain character is asked to unlock the door gets real repetitive real fast). Yet at the same time, the circular nature of it works because that’s how hate and distrust work. It doesn’t make sense. It goes round and round without rhyme or reason, just as our painful memories do, just as the ghosts which haunt us.
Dedicated to his father (a United States Air Force vet who passed not long ago), Goeghegan’s heart is on full display in Brooklyn 45. A film which yearns for the possibility of reconnecting in the afterlife while also offering an empathetic look at soldiers of all types, the personal nature of it can be felt from frame one, carrying the viewer through an emotionally affecting journey that touches the soul. Whether or not this becomes your favorite film from Geoghegan depends on your taste, but it’s certainly his most accomplished work in my eyes, and one that every fan of his should gather for, perhaps during some cold, dreary night.
By Matt Konopka