Review: LAVENDER, Secrets Are Revealed in a Haunted House
Abbie Cornish, Dermot Mulroney and Justin Long star in a gothic ghost story, directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly,
Like many gothic ghost stories, Lavender centers around a woman with a vulnerable psyche and a shadowy past. In this case, the woman is Jane (Abbie Cornish), a young mother and wife who may have butchered her parents and sister as a child (she has no memory of this).
When she's not at home with her husband and daughter, Jane photographs abandoned farmhouses, not unlike the one she grew up in. It's not until she begins having strange dreams and receiving anonymous, mysterious trinkets that she winds up photographing her own old house -- the scene of the crime -- without knowing so.
Shortly after taking the picture, Jane sees a little blonde girl in the middle of the road, and swerves to avoid hitting her. Her car flips over, and the next time we see Jane, she has amnesia and does not recognize her family.
This is a development that ultimately seems pointless, considering that she already had no memory of her childhood, and then regains the memory of her present life fairly quickly (a matter of days). Either way, this narrative push is clearly designed to get Jane back into that house; indeed, her psychiatrist (Justin Long) suggests she stay there for a few days, to see what memories might be unearthed.
Jane's uncle (Dermot Mulroney) greets the family and shows them to the house, allowing the story to finally kick into gear. Secrets are revealed, identities are questioned, and the farmhouse makes for a compelling locale in which to watch these revelations unfold. It's refreshing to see cornfields, dusty roads, and sepia-toned interiors in a haunted house story, when their horror connotation usually leans more toward the slasher variety.
There are some eerie moments, and the score heightens these scenes without becoming overwhelming. Unfortunately, despite this and some solid performances -- Abbie Cornish is particularly enigmatic, while Justin Long is miscast in his role -- Lavender suffers from an identity crisis more irreparable than any of its characters.
It's difficult for a horror movie to be genuinely moving or cathartic. Unlike a straight drama or thriller, much of a horror film's runtime is dedicated to jump scares, foreshadowing and buildup. This leaves less time for real character study, and less time for the audience to build an emotional connection with the protagonist. The Others (2001) and The Orphanage (2007) are some examples of horror movies that successfully build to a heartbreaking emotional crescendo. Lavender is ambitious and gives it an admirable try, but can't stick the landing.
Director Ed Gass-Donnelly imbues the film with a lot of style (including several extended super-slo-mo tracking shots that frame the characters like wax figures in a museum, a technique that yields diminishing returns the more frequently he executes it), and obviously has visual talent to spare. Had the material been better suited to his grandiose flourishes, Lavender might have been something special. Instead, it's a respectable, if muddled, horror film for people who would rather be watching a domestic drama, and vice versa.