In a cluttered single-wide trailer in a snowcovered, and anonymously dreary logging town in northern British Columbia, Bob Langmore finds himself disappearing. That it not to say that running away from his wife and daughter almost a decade ago to live a thankless life doing dangerous job as a millwright in a softwood milling operation will cause a man to vanish. No, in Geoff Redknapp's extraordinary feature film debut, the disappearing is indeed, quite literal. The Unseen could be seen as a sophisticated and understated story of the plight of the 'invisible man,' but the drama and setting are so exceptionally observed, that it is better to view the film through the lens of a father coming to grips with the difficult consequences of being absent from his family during tough times.
As restrained pictures on the extraordinary that value character and grounded drama go, The Unseen is the best of its kind to come along since Unbreakable. I do not offer this praise frivolously, as the execution is so startlingly confident here. And consider the fact that it it took M. Night Shayamalan at least three kicks at the can to find such a delicate place to tell a hero origin story.
Bob is an ex-NHL heavy who ended his promising career by way of too much violence in an fight on the ice. His brief career is enough to be recognized anywhere in small town Canada for his failure, and he (along with the film's first act) sits in a place of rigid melancholy, at the cusp of suicide. He is using copious amounts of marijuana for his painful, almost leperous, condition, and his wife has moved on to another relationship to offer some kind of stability to their precocious but rebellious teenage daughter. This kind of grim exercise in Canadiana should be familiar to both French and English canucks as these kinds of small town horror stories are a staple in the country, from Claude Jutra's Mon Oncle Antoine to Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero to Ed Gass-Donnelly's Small Town Murder Songs. The difference here is that the director is an experienced special effects technician, whose dayjob is to make big budget hollywood superheroes like Deadpool, Watchmen and The X-Men look convincing in the multiplex.
Redknapp's realization of a man slowly, painfully turning invisible is a masterful bit of craft, the process involves exposed organs, bones and disappearing skin. And yet the thing that elevates The Unseen, is the almost masochistic level of restraint in using his tool box of make-up and CGI effects. But the veracity of capturing the rhythms, poverty and stress of small town living make the movie pulse with verisimilitude: A petty drug deal in front of a frosty rundown shipyard, a drunk screaming gossip and in response to a simple empathic question. Even simple touches like Adan Young's fingers wrapped in white hockey tape (to hide their absence) and his neck in a dirty red bandana are compelling in and of itself, confirming that minimalism was the better choice when one can do anything visually, even on a tiny indie budget if you have the know how and tools. The question remains is whether or not this hushed take on the genre can find enough brave souls willing to try a different and raw take on an concept often represented by cheap sight gags.
Aden Young, who breathes convincing life, time and place into Bob, anchors the film with a monster, inward-facing, performance that proves his prowess on display of Sundance's original series Rectify is no fluke. Young can evoke a ragged rainbow of emotional chaos by merely putting his hands in his pockets and hunching his shoulders against the cold air. It is kind of terrifying to watch his low-key magnetism in all its understated intensity. If he is typecast in this mold, well, he has certainly found many shading in it already.
Bob wants to see his daughter one more time before his condition ends his life (or he ends it himself) and finances his trip down to Vancouver by acting as a mule for his aggressive drug dealer. Everyone is slogging through tough times, and including small time dope pushers, and this one has trading organs from the local grizzly bears harvested at rifle point while scrounging for food from the dump (times are tough for bears too) to illegal Chinese medicine shops to make ends meet. So carrying an ursine gall bladder on ice in a thermos, with barely the strength to drive, he sets off in his battered truck to say his final words to his family. Suffice it to say, there is a lot going on in The Unseen, but the film never takes its eyes of of Bob's relationship to the people he loves, and how it is eating him up (almost literally) to be in the place that he has found himself. When the film does break out of its funk, as is perhaps demanded by the genre, the effect is startling, cathartic and wonderful. And damn if it doesn't promise an interesting series going forward, like any good super-hero movie should.
When you look at the debut films of currently top-of-their game filmmakers like Rian Johnson and Gareth Edwards (at the moment, hard at work on sizably budgeted Star Wars films), who made technically ambitious but softly empathic films right out of the gate it is not hard to see the potential on display here. The Unseen, is a gift to those who value character and a more tender kind of storytelling; undoubtedly it is a sure sign of many more great things to come.