“The only way out, is in…”
…What does that phrase mean to you? To me, it means that we are our own prisoners, and only we have the key to let ourselves out. Friends, family, therapists, all of them are great and their help should be sought out, but they can only do so much for us when we’re struggling with guilt. Ultimately, we are not free until we can manage to forgive ourselves.
This is part of the theme which writer/director Carlson Young explores with her impressive debut feature, The Blazing World, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend. Based on her own 2018 short, which is itself loosely based on the novel by Margaret Cavendish, the film, written by Young and Pierce Brown, follows Margaret (Young), a self-destructive person still suffering from the pain of her sister’s accidental death decades earlier. Upon returning home and reconnecting with her absent mother, Alice (Vinessa Shaw) and abusive, alcoholic father, Tom (Dermont Mulroney), she discovers a portal to another world where she meets Lained (Udo Kier), who informs her that her sister is trapped there and can be saved, but only if she retrieves keys from a trio of demons hell-bent on stopping her.
The film wastes no time in transporting viewers to a fantasy world imbued with childish imagination. We meet a young Margaret (Josie Fink) and her sister, Elizabeth (Lillie Fink), playing by the pool outside their breathtaking country home. Fireflies glow bright, twinkling with the magical sound of chimes and coupled with a whimsical score by Isom Innis. From this point on, The Blazing World refuses to bind itself with realism, and lives in a beautiful world of surrealist fantasy.
The moment her sister passes though, Margaret finds a more violent, nightmarish fantasy realm clashing with the beauty of childhood, as she witnesses a portal open, and a cringe-inducing, creepy Kier waving her towards it. If your first thought is Alice in Wonderland, you’d be right, only there are no cheshire cats down the rabbit hole which Udo encourages Margaret to leap down, but something much worse.
While Alice in Wonderland is not the primary inspiration for the film, Lewis Carroll’s influence can be felt all around. Upon returning home, Margaret meets friends at a bar dubbed “The Woods,” which appears to be the coolest bar on earth and screams of Wonderland, setup like it’s on the inside of a neon-lit forest. The rabbit hole itself is redefined as scientific, with one of Margaret’s idols, Dr. Cruz (Liz Mikel) mentioning going down rabbit holes for answers while discussing the mind’s ability to open doorways to other realities. And Young does a magnificent job of bringing that strange yet magical beauty of Alice to The Blazing World. Cinematographer Shane F. Kelly creates images that are so breathtaking, you’ll want to pause the film just to appreciate their gorgeous detail. Young takes us from fantastical deserts with pinkish skies to German expressionist-inspired hallways filled with a guiding smoke and glowing balls of light, to sinister dungeons and more. The Blazing World is a truly inspired work of art, and I would even dare call it a visual masterpiece.
The fact that this is Young’s debut is something I could hardly comprehend, the execution of bringing this world to life is so well done.
All throughout The Blazing World, Young poisons the charming fantasy of the film with nightmarish images that shock to great effect, from flashes of Kier drowning Margaret in a bathtub, to feasts of maggots and brief glimpses of horrific creatures that I will admit I wish we saw more of. The Blazing World unsettles the viewer with jolting cuts in which people are there and suddenly not there, quick movements of villains with missing frames, and a sense of dread that permeates from every dark corner of the scene.
For all of the accomplishments which Young achieves with this debut feature though, it isn’t without the obvious trappings of a first feature film. Each and every performance comes off a little too heightened, giving the actors more of an awkward stage feel, which isn’t helped by overly poetic dialogue that works in moments, but hardly ever feels natural and therefore fails to have the impact it should. Then again, The Blazing World is not a “natural” film, and the stage vibe of it could all be Young’s intent, in which case it simply didn’t work for me.
The Blazing World is mesmerizing in its beauty, but the emotional weight of it and the tension too often lack the intended effect.
Still, The Blazing World is a hallucinatory fantasy that plays like Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno. This is a film that has the potential to connect with anyone who has ever harbored a deep-seeded guilt that they might know they don’t deserve, but put it on themselves anyway. The overdone vibe of it all at times belies the underlying message, but the Hellish pain which Young portrays and the heartache of the film is still all too clear, and it’s a pain that resonates in everything.
Margaret’s adventure takes a bit long to get to, and the poetic nature doesn’t always hit home, but The Blazing World is a passionate debut rich with an awe-inspiring magic. It’s mind-boggling to think that this is Young’s first feature, and she has made a loud and clear statement that we had all better take notice, because if this is what she can do on her first outing, just wait until you see what comes next.
By Matt Konopka