Have you ever wondered what happens to your favorite warm-weather vacation spots when you’re not around? When the air gets cold and miserable and business slows to a crawl? Probably nothing, right? But what if…
...In the right hands, such a simple concept can be turned monstrous and uncanny. Fortunately for us all, the monstrous and uncanny are two areas where writer-director Mickey Keating excels, and simple concepts with a basis in some of horror’s most unusual storytellers are some of his favorite sandboxes to play in. His latest feature, Offseason, which just had its World Premiere at SXSW Film Festival, is an eerie tale of a family weathered down and an island with a secret.
Marie Aldrich (Jocelin Donahue) must return to an island she’d only ever been warned away from after receiving a letter that her mother Ava’s (Melora Walters) grave has been vandalized and she, as the only living relative, must come to rectify the situation. She brings along her partner George (Joe Swanberg) to help her, but things feel too sinister to be true from the jump. The menacing Bridge Man (Richard Brake) explains the island is closing for the season but allows them entry once he reads Marie’s summons. This threat of entrapment in an unfamiliar place sends Marie and George both spiraling into a sort of anxiety-soaked tension, but they do their best to cope and meet with the caretaker to repair her mother’s grave. Trouble is, no one can find him, and the townspeople don’t seem to take too kindly to strangers making an unwelcome appearance in the island’s offseason. Faced with no other choice, Marie recounts her mother’s anxieties about the island to George, and they must find a way to either track down the caretaker or get the hell out of Dodge before the bridge is locked until spring.
Offseason, in terms of plot, is virtually impossible to talk about for risk of spoiling, and it’s best to go in blind. Suffice to say, the film’s opening moments pull you in immediately, and the sense of dread keeps hold until the final shots. Ava’s monologue in the cold open feels as though she’s talking directly to us, and everything about her body language indicates a feeling of both terror and submission. She is clearly drained, yet just as clearly held in the sway of her deepest nightmares. It is one of my favorite openings to a film I’ve seen lately, and her eye contact with viewers for the duration of it—broken only when she cannot bear to look in some of her more vulnerable moments—sets the confrontational, horrific tone for the rest of the film.
I can’t quite choose a favorite element at work in Offseason. Every character is played with a believability that makes them tactile and real. Marie is understandably frayed at the edges after the loss of her mother and having to fight for her life and her wishes. George is just trying to do his best in the face of impossible circumstances. Ava is disintegrated in the face of an incalculable trauma. And the Lone Palm Island townsfolk are just trying to live their lives in a place that’s just a little bit…off under the surface. We connect with them, even the enigmatic Bridge Man. Every actor on board brings their A-game to this story and its people, stealing moments and scenes from one another like a deftly executed volleyball match.
Mac Fisken’s cinematography is a major player in carrying off the mood of the film effectively, and while it is always great, there are moments in particular that take it to the next level for me. Every instance of direct eye contact with viewers, the end sequence, and a bit of exchange between Marie and the Bridge Man involving a simple blinking red light. Not to mention the way light and shadow interact throughout to give us only the briefest glimpses of the island’s true terror. The remarkable talents of both cinematographer and editor Valerie Krulfeifer come together to make this feel like a Mickey Keating movie with such impressive force that it made me reclassify my longstanding favorite of his work into its own category. Darling is my favorite black and white Keating film, but this just may take the cake for favorite one in color. I know Keating has a tendency to be somewhat of a divisive force—you either like his work or you don’t, it seems, with precious little grey area—but his newest offering definitely deserves a chance. Besides, there’s been an interesting uptick in island-focused horror recently, and who doesn’t want more of that? Go into this one as blind as you can and remember, sometimes the best way to face a nightmare is to embrace it like an old friend.
By Katelyn Nelson