“You’re gonna pretend like your life isn’t already over”. No, that’s not just what a priest says to a couple when marrying them, it’s also a chilling line of dialogue from the new film Artik, which explores the mind of a killer obsessed with comic books to lengths more frightening than the idea of marriage…
…The debut feature of writer/director Tom Botchii Skowronski, Artik concerns serial killer “Artik” (Jerry G. Angelo), a terribly imposing man with a dark obsession over comics and the idea of heroes. He and his unhinged wife, Flin (Lauren Ashley Carter) have kidnapped a bunch of boys who they have work for them, tending the farm and occasionally helping with a kill. You know, kid stuff. Artik is in the midst of training young boy Adam (Gavin White) to become a killer like himself, but when Adam meets Holton (Chase Williamson), a man drawn to chaos, Artik finds himself facing an unexpected hero he can’t comprehend.
Artik is like Unbreakable meets Frailty, an incredibly dark superhero story told in the realm of pure realism. Artik has no powers, he is simply a madman. Holton’s greatest gift is a pure heart. Together, these two men are the perfect foils to one another, locked in a battle over power and who will bring Adam to either the side of good or evil. A man who is seeking meaning in his “work”, aka, killing and then drawing those kills out as comics, Angelo seems to be channeling Ed Kemper from Mindhunter. If I met this guy in an alley, I’m pretty sure my heart would explode from fear. The way Angelo speaks and describes his actions had me hanging on every word like a fish dangling from a hook on the end of a line. Artik’s wife, Flin, is arguably even more frightening. Lauren Ashley Carter is an animal in this. I’ve long admired Carter’s work ever since she blew me away in Darling, and in Artik, she always seems about one second from ripping someone’s throat out with her bare hands. That sort of unrelenting is exactly how she and Artik are able to so easily manipulate the children and use them as their little murder elves.
Artik is a deeply disturbing depiction of child manipulation and torment. This film had me feeling uneasy the whole way through. The first time we even see the kids on the farm is when Flin tosses some food in a barn and announces feeding time, only to see a group of kids come scrambling out of the darkness. These kids don’t seem to have any idea of the outside world, making it easier for Artik to train them to be like him. I shuddered at moments like Artik forcing Adam to hammer an ice pick through a block of ice, encouraging him to get angrier and angrier like the Emperor in Star Wars shouting “yes, let the hate flow through you”. The core of this story is all about the influence of an upbringing on a child, and the scars it can leave. Holton himself had a mysterious, rough upbringing yet managed to overcome it, and so he immediately recognizes all of the signs of abuse with Adam when he first meets him, setting him on a path to save the boy.
Those expecting some kind of fun, horror version of a superhero film like Brightburn will want to burn those expectations, because this film is grim as hell. In just the first few minutes, we see the aforementioned trough feasting, Artik painting the heads of corpses wrapped in plastic and buried up to their necks like the cadavers in Motel Hell, and even some excessive beetle head-butting, all set to an unsettling score by Corey Wallace that flowed like pinpricks up my spine. Skowronski is fantastic at unnerving the audience. He edited the film himself, and pairs all of the above with quick, angry cuts that set me on edge. Watching Artik is like setting sail in the middle of a hurricane. Cuts happen suddenly and unexpectedly, which left me feeling as if I was being thrown around by huge waves and trembling at the thought of what would come next.
If you can’t tell, Artik is a brutal film that is not for the faint of heart. We are talking about childhood abuse, trauma and murder, after all. Again, Skowronski is telling an Unbreakable type story, but without the magic and wonder or possibility of anything even remotely supernatural. That’s all been replaced by troubling psychology and violent evil. Artik and Flin have no remorse. They’re monsters, and they have no problem committing violence against children. Artik is as cold as the artic itself. Many of the kills in the film are swift and ugly, and those that aren’t are a bloody nightmare, especially one that will have me giving my fork the side eye for the next week at every meal. There is no semblance of comedy here, no relief from the overwhelming darkness of the whole thing. Skowronski wants you to be uncomfortable, and for the most part, he succeeds.
But, though Artik has a lot it does well, it also has one massive problem that keeps it from being great: the pacing. I know, I know, I said Skowronski does a great job with the editing, and he does in that he accomplishes exactly what he wants by making the audience uncomfortable, but that style also unexpectedly sacrifices story. At just under 80 minutes, Artik is a psychologically complicated film that doesn’t allow much time to explore that psychology. It's kind of like a comic book that's been penciled, but hasn't been filled with the eye-popping color it needs to suck us in deeper. I got so little yet wanted so much more of Artik’s relationship with Adam, and really any of the relationships. Holton spends so little time with the boy, roughly two scenes, that the two barely have a bond before the film moves into the third act, lessening the emotional impact of everything that happens. Artik has a wonderful sense of foreboding and atmosphere that I wanted to ruminate in, but I barely got to soak it all in before we suddenly jump to the next moment and then the next. Artik is as fast as a speeding bullet, but in this case, that’s not a super power.
Overall, Artik is a fascinating, bleak story with strong themes and interesting characters, but comes just short of fully developing those elements. These are great characters, but the film’s too-quick pace doesn’t allow us to get to know them well. We never fully understand Artik’s motives or why Flin goes along with it, why they’re training the boys, none of it, outside of them being purely mad. And I would’ve killed to see more of the psychological battle between Artik and Holton, but this is also too quickly touched upon. Still, those seeking a refresher from Disney-fied superhero stories will find plenty to enjoy in this disturbing deconstruction of violent minds, and the effect those minds can have on children forced to follow them.
Artik releases on VOD from Dread on September 10th.
By Matt Konopka