Desperate people are capable of some pretty ugly things. If you’ve ever seen me a few hours after shoving Taco Bell down my throat, you know what I mean. In all seriousness, we wonder what we would do in situations where loved ones are threatened, without any clear-cut answer until we’re faced with a life or death crisis. Enter Rattlesnake, which deals heavily in the choices that make us human, or monsters…
…Some of you may be familiar with writer/director Zak Hilditch’s work after his previous Netflix terror, 1922, an eerie adaptation of a Stephen King story. With Rattlesnake, Hilditch returns to a story about murder and ghosts set under the hot sun of the west, but under much different circumstances. Here we meet Katrina (Carmen Ejogo), travelling with her daughter, Clara (Apollonia Pratt), on their way to stay with Katrina’s mother. But when the car gets a flat and Katrina pulls over to change a tire, Clara wanders off and is bitten by a rattlesnake. Luckily, Katrina manages to find a mysterious woman (Debrianna Mansini) nearby, who magically heals, but warns there is a price to pay: Katrina must deliver a soul for a soul by dusk, or Clara will die.
As a stressed single mother who is trying to start over and appears to be running from some abuse in her life (perhaps a nasty ex), Katrina is the perfect candidate for this type of story, and Ejogo absolutely nails the desperation and panic of the character. I feel a tinge of worry every time my dog gets sick, so it’s not hard to relate. There is nothing more precious to a parent than a child, and in Katrina’s life, Clara is literally all she has.
Of course, like most people, Katrina isn’t ready to jump to murder right away. In fact, Katrina is a words before war pacifist, as we learn during an early conversation with Clara, where she explains to her that no one ever deserves to be hurt, even if they hurt you first. Rattlesnake is a little heavy handed on the theme this way, as Hilditch consistently finds ways to remind the audience that Katrina is a woman still learning how to stand up and sock life right in the face. Instead of easy listening on the road, she listens to grating self-help shows that talk about how we deal with events in our life shows us who we really are. Hell, even the coffee machine at the hospital gets in on the theme action, with a sign reading “take life one cup at a time.” But things aren’t that simple for Katrina, coffee machine.
At the hospital, Clara appears to be fine, until a man (Bruce Davis) shows up and informs Katrina she has to kill someone or Clara will die, proving his point by giving Katrina a glimpse at a poisoned, rotting visage of her daughter. The brief moment is shocking and visceral, and it’s enough to send Katrina into full on momma warrior mode, hunting for a victim like the Terminator looking for Sarah Connor.
Rattlesnake has a great setup that’s cocked and loaded for potential, but it suffers from one major problem: intensity. It just isn’t there. Katrina must push aside her morals and seek out a sacrificial victim, a fascinating dilemma, but the urgency is lacking, replaced by a sad internal struggle that sees Katrina doing very little as she tries to decide who she will kill. To keep things interesting, Hilditch throws in some ghosts of murder’s past, aka, the previous victims of whatever Katrina is enduring, trapped in this small town and left to freak out anyone who gets sucked into the rattlesnake’s game.
None of these ghosts are particularly frightening though, and most actually seem rather benevolent. It almost feels as if they’re shoved in there once in a while to remind Katrina of her daughter (as if she needed a reminder), but without ever playing much of a role other than to haunt some scenery. The problem here is that there is no real antagonist to this story. The ghosts aren’t threatening, and it only takes one failed attempt before Katrina finds her perfect person that any of us would be willing to trade the life of our kid for. The only thing truly working against Katrina is time, but Hilditch’s slow pacing works against the film, getting us more into Katrina’s emotional state, while sacrificing that race against time tension.
Ian Hultquist’s eerie score works overtime in an attempt to bring some unease to the film and is easily one of the more effective elements of Rattlesnake, but it isn’t enough to get the venom flowing. For better or worse, Rattlesnake is a film that sheds the coarse skin of your average horror thriller for something more spiritual. What Katrina goes through is more a spirit quest than any sort of adrenaline pumping adventure, encountering animalistic symbols like the rattlesnake and a watchful painting of a wolf, both representing the dangerous predator in all of us. Oddly enough, Rattlesnake is a commentary on how savage people can be, without ever truly exploring that savagery until the final minutes.
The film is well made and features an excellent performance by Ejogo, but with so much of it revolving around Katrina pondering what makes a person deserving of death and catching the occasional glimpse of a wandering ghost, Rattlesnake slithers more than it bites. Like the desert’s victims, Hilditch’s film is trapped in a strange purgatory, not boring, but not thrilling, either. More like a rattlesnake baking in the hot sun, contemplating what it means to be a rattlesnake.
Rattlesnake is now hissing on Netflix.
By Matt Konopka