If you think back to childhood, chances are, each of you had a make-believe game that you liked to play. Mine was my friends and I pretending one of us was Jason Voorhees hunting the rest of us down one by one, but I was a fucked up kid. No matter what your game was, I’d bet that, as an adult, people might think you were strange for still playing it. But what would happen if you had never let yourself grow out of it? Playing at the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival (PUFF) in September, Braid aims to explore that very idea…
…Written/directed by Mitzi Peirone, Braid tells the story of Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay), two fugitives who decide to rob their rich, psychotic friend, Daphne (Madeline Brewer). But getting the money will be difficult, since Daphne still lives in the fantasy world they all created as kids, and the only way Petula and Tilda can get the money is by participating in a twisted game of make believe.
Right away, I’m amazed by Peirone’s style, especially considering Braid is her first feature. Petula and Tilda are both drug addicts/dealers, and throughout the course of the film, Peirone does an excellent job of portraying the events through their eyes with the use of techniques vaguely similar to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. The film jumps between random flashes of black and white, beautiful but unnatural colors, and grimy darkness. Sometimes the frame is upside down, too close, too far, etc. Braid is like being on a bad, colorful trip in a funhouse of mirrors, all beautifully shot by cinematographer Todd Banhazi. The film is so colorful, it’s like a Unicorn threw up on the reel. Peirone takes what could be a basic plot of two girls robbing their psychotic friend and transforms it into a strange, dark fairy tale rich with meaning and soaked with the blood of lesser Alice in Wonderland inspirations. It’s a trip deep into the rabbit hole, with nothing but darkness at the end of the tunnel.
The three girls themselves are fascinating, especially Daphne. Brewer commands all of the attention every second she’s on screen as an unhinged woman who in one moment, seems a little odd but sweet, and in the next, is a vicious psychopath trying to slice your fingers off with a pair of scissors. What’s especially chilling is the fantasy she’s created, in which Tilda is her daughter, and Petula is an in-house doctor who she wants to impregnate her (and if you guessed that’s impossible, bingo, you’re a winner). Brewer’s portrayal of Daphne is so delicate, so perfectly balanced, that even her blinking feels unnerving. Making matters more uncomfortable is the way that Petula and Tilda begin to buy into the game. Waterhouse and Hay do a great job at portraying a slow descent into the same madness that has engulfed Daphne, often forcing the audience to question their sanity as well.
But what’s most interesting between the three characters is the underlying theme of their friendship, which is the idea that the magic of childhood is inevitably destroyed by the never-ending pain and darkness that is being an adult. Remember, Tilda and Petula are two fugitive drug addicts, a far cry from the little girls playing house and doctor in a treehouse. They can still play the same games, but as an adult, those games have a twisted undertone. Braid deals with the same crippling thought that eventually beats us all: somehow, some way, we all eventually have to grow up.
My problem with Braid is that Peirone takes what is a rather unique plot and attempts to turn it into something much more meaningful and complicated. Normally I wouldn’t complain about that, but in this case, it results in the characters not always feeling natural. For example, the basic premise is fantastic: two girls who attempt to steal from a rich friend by playing a twisted game of fantasy. Okay, great. Love it. And at first, Peirone plays into that premise wonderfully, with some incredibly screwed up moments that will make you rethink the normalcy of any kid you see playing “house”. Avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that Tilda and Petula do not have the most pleasant experience at Daphne’s manor, and find themselves in the occasional, torturous circumstance. So when (MINOR SPOILER) Tilda and Petula suddenly flip, seemingly for no reason whatsoever, and begin participating in the game as if this is totally fine, I have to wonder what the hell happened. The change is so sudden that it frankly comes out of nowhere, and to make matters more confusing, the girls completely forget about trying to get any of Daphne’s cash. I understand that Peirone is exploring an intricate part of the human psyche, and maybe even a bit of Stockholm Syndrome, but with character motivations lacking halfway through the film, the audience has no one to root for, and in a horror film, even one that blends so many different genres as does Braid, that’s a mistake.
Speaking of the horror, as you can imagine, Braid is not your traditional horror film. Without much consistency of the characters or plot by a certain point, Braid acts more like a bad dream, floating between genres such as fantasy, horror, mystery, drama, all wrapped into a macabre bundle. But that isn’t to say that Braid isn’t full of terror. The situation alone is at the very least incredibly unnerving, and there are some visually grotesque moments, yet because Braid skips around genres so much, the tone is uneven, and I found myself wishing Peirone had found a way to stay consistent with not just her themes, but with the way the film makes the audience feel. Like the characters themselves, I felt as if I was trapped in some sort of emotional purgatory, never quite sure how I was supposed to be responding as the plot progressed.
Because Braid is so steeped in fantasy and the madness of all three character’s worlds they’ve created, Peirone makes it nearly impossible to ever know what’s real and what isn’t. As the audience, Peirone even forces you to question what you thought was going on in the opening act. This often creates more confusion than satisfaction. At a certain point, I don’t know what I’m watching or what’s going on in this movie. Imagine you’re Jennifer Lopez in The Cell. Peirone is the madwoman we’ve been sent into the mind of, and every time you think you’ve found a way out, there’s a whole new maze to traverse through. This isn’t necessarily a complaint, but more an observation. Fans who like easy answers and cleanly wrapped finales will likely not appreciate the varying degrees of subtext and questions which Braid poses.
Braid never quite lives up to its own premise, but if you enjoy intelligent horror that works as more of an art film than your average genre piece, then Braid is well worth the watch. Despite its flaws, Peirone paints a beautiful picture of madness and the undying bond of being mad together. Braid catapults you into a dream world that will leave you disoriented, uncomfortable, and thoughtful all at once. Don’t watch this one under the influence folks. You might begin to question your own sanity.
You can catch Braid playing at the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival (PUFF) on Friday, September 7th, by getting your tickets here.
By Matt Konopka