Thursday, January 7, 2016

Cub (2015) and the Perils of Pretentions

I have once again been binging on movies in preparation for Dark Discussions annual year in review episode. The last film I watched before compiling my “best of” list was the Belgian horror film Cub.
Sam, a boy somewhere on the autism spectrum, is part of a scout troop on a weekend camping trip. The scout masters spin tales of Kai the werewolf boy to entertain and frighten their charges, unaware there is a real wild child watching over them.

Simple enough, but what follows definitely goes in unexpected directions. The real “Kai” causes only minor mischief among the campers, and only Sam knows that he exists. The real threat comes from a serial killer (I assume) who has seeded the woods with elaborate traps.

Cub is a film that seems to have divided audiences. It generated very strong word of mouth on the festival circuit, but now sits in the mid 30’s on Rotten Tomatoes. The kills are fun, director Joas Govaerts presents solid visuals, and I enjoy Steve Moore’s throwback synth score. The film’s characters are believable – the kids act as kids do, and the counselors are typical 20 somethings caught between wanting to teach the kids and entertain themselves – and the performances (as best as I can tell given the language barrier) are solid. This is especially noteworthy as the 12 year old boys are players by actual 12 year olds. In particular I liked Gil Eeckelaert's Kai, being able to convey a variety of emotions in addition to the menace the role requires.

For all these reasons, I find myself landing on the slight disappointed “pro” side, but I can’t help but wonder if I would be as supporting if the film was in English instead of Belgonian*.

Obviously, it is hard to rate performances if you don’t speak the language. Most 12 year old actors come across poorly in English, and it may be that the reason I so liked Eeckelaert’s performance so much is because Kai is the one character who speaks only through body language.

More of an issue though is the plot. Now, this is a straight up horror film, and as such the story matters much less than the kills, the scares and the atmosphere, but there are glaringly obvious issues that should bug me more.

The serial killer has no motivation except that he’s unemployed. His traps are absurdly elaborate, and it is implausible that any one man would be able to set them up, let alone wire them to a switchboard in an underground lair. For that matter, just how many victims does he expect to come through in the middle of a forest that is mostly prohibited to people? We get no backstory for Kai, which would not be a problem except that we eventually learn he has a connection to the serial killer, but we have no idea why that connection exists. There are at least 3 characters who are left just standing in the woods alone, their fates never resolved. This is not a city park – this is a murder forest, and dead or alive we should know their fates.Lastly, the final act includes a twist that I don’t think is earned, mostly because we don’t know enough about Sam to understand it.

And all of this would almost certainly bug the heck out of me. If it was in English.
For some reason, most Americans think of foreign language films, particular European films, as more sophisticated. It is a long ingrained prejudice and I can be just as susceptible to it as anyone. So I think on some level, these significant gaps to me come across not as sloppiness or poor editing, but as intentional ambiguity that makes the film deeper (something both praised and damned in It Follows). I wonder if there is some inner bias, my inner pretentious douchebag, afraid of lacking the sophistication to grasp the nuance of sublime European cinema, that wants to the film to be more than it is, rather that it in with American retro-slashers like Lost After Dark (which is a perfectly fine film itself).

PS: The fine folks at The Last Horrorcast did an episode on Cub that well mirrors my thoughts.  Give them a listen!

*That’s a joke. Unbunch your linguistic undies.

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