Movie Mayhem – The Turning

The Turning — 2020; Directed by Floria Sigismondi; Starring Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten and Joely Richardson

Wait. What? Um… huh? Is that it? Wait. Huh?

This is what I felt as the end credits scrolled across the screen of The Turning, the new psychological thriller/horror movie that spends plenty of time building up the odd, sometimes creepy relationships between its characters, just starts to get interesting (and a little weird — in a good way), and then abruptly ends as if the filmmakers forgot to put the last ten minutes on the reel. The more I try to put the pieces together, the more confused I am about what actually happened — and whether there was actually some clever twist at the end or if the writers just didn’t know where they wanted to go with it.

Mackenzie Davis plays Kate Mandell, a private tutor hired by a reclusive old lady (Barbara Marten) to be a live-in tutor for her young ward, Flora Fairchild (Brooklynn Prince ). Like any good old-fashioned horror movie, the signs to immediately run away are all in plain site — the large, mysterious mansion; spiders crawling on the windows; the housekeeper with no sense of humor; strange bumps in the night; and the mysterious disappearance of the previous live-in tutor. But, like any good old-fashioned horror movie, all signs are ignored because young protagonist is cute as a button.

If having a mannequin set-up in your bedroom to watch you sleep or the curiosity of the forbidden east wing of the manor isn’t disturbing enough, enter Miles (Finn Wolfhard), Flora’s older brother who arrives home from boarding school on Kate’s first night at the manor. He is all kinds of serial killer, from his creepy stare to the way he speaks to both Kate and the housekeeper. This is what you get when you allow privileged kids to grow up without any rules or the hand of authority.

As the days go on and things get scarier and more insane, Kate finally contemplates leaving, but with the promise-promise she made to Flora that she wouldn’t take off like the previous nanny, she feels obligated to stay and protect the child from not only her psychotic brother, but from the forces that may or may not be haunting the manor.

The film gets much more interesting as everything is slowly revealed over the course of the movie. Based on the novella “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, putting the pieces of what happened together and figuring out where the film is going did keep me rather engaged through the majority of the film. Everything feels grounded enough within the family dynamics that when the supernatural aspects of the story start to take control, it doesn’t ever feel as if it’s out of place or overwhelming.

Davis does a nice job of bringing just enough fear and worry into her performance to stay true to the character, but not go so far over-the-top that it becomes ingratiating. As does Wolfhard, who emits just enough eeriness to the character of Miles without making him seem outlandish or fantastical.

What bothered me the most was in the character backstories, which are all weak at best. The children’s parents died in some type of accident, which led Miles to supposedly go from being a sweet boy to a psycho who would strangle a fellow student, thus getting him expelled from school. At no time is this idea explored in any meaningful way, thus we’re never truly able to get to the core essence of the character.

More egregious is Flora’s heightened fear of leaving the property. There seems to be something that the housekeeper has ingrained in the little girl to keep her from leaving the house. Again, this idea is never once explored to the degree that’s needed to feel empathy for her and her debilitating anxiety; it’s just a fact we’re supposed to accept, even though it’s probably the key to understanding what actually happens in the final act of the film. With a better exploration of both these ideas, I think the film could have led somewhere super interesting.

What we end up with is an odd twist in the last ten minutes of the film that completely catches you off-guard. The moment it happens is actually quite exciting. At this point in the movie, we’ve learned what happened to the previous tutor and everything that leads up to that specific revelation (and what happens because of it) get the gears moving at hyper-speed to hit us with an exciting conclusion — and then twist.

Now we’re left wondering what all of it really means; where is the film actually going with all of this? Answers are coming, and it’s going to be a killer of a — Wait. What?

If you remember back in 1999 when The Sixth Sense blew audience’s minds with such a clever twist that the majority of movie goers didn’t see coming, it made you want to see the film again to see if everything made sense enough to make that twist work (which, upon further viewing does exactly that). This, I believe, is what director Floria Sigismondi was going for with the end to The Turning. However, instead of relishing in a mind-altering conclusion, Sigismondi doesn’t reveal what needs to be revealed for you to be intrigued enough to go back and see how the pieces of the puzzle all fit together.

Instead, we are only given hints as to what may have happened, forcing you to have to watch it again to see if the ending makes more sense upon a second viewing. On paper, this might be an interesting idea, as it fits into the psychological manner of the presentation, but because the end is so frustrating and abrupt, the idea of going back infuriates you more than it entices you. I want to go back to see if there’s anything I missed that might help explain it, but do I really want to waste another ninety minutes on the hope it I might understand it better?

Not really, which is the overall issue with the film. Yes, the story and the actors keep you engaged, and the atmosphere adds just enough texture to the overall creepiness of the film, but there isn’t enough substance or depth behind the characters to warrant the need for a second viewing. I’m not saying all films need to spell everything out at the end to make sense; some films go way too far in explaining its meaning, and leaving some things up to the imagination is a wonderful tool, if used correctly. But The Turning ends up far too vague to work the way it needs to in order to fully appreciate the film as a whole.

My Grade: B

Bonus Reviews:

I’m not a big fan of Guy Ritchie, and though The Gentleman did have its moments (including a great narrative structure and a powerful final act), and every actor on board doesn’t waste one moment of screen time, the overall story and the atmosphere did languish and feel a bit dusty. B+

Sweet, funny and charming may not be what you’d expect to describe a movie about a Jew-hating ten-year-old whose only goal is to become part of Adolf Hitler’s Reich, but writer/director Taika Waititi (who also stars as the imaginary version of the aforementioned Hitler) does a fantastic job blending the humorous, the absurd and the saccharine in JoJo Rabbit, the story of a young boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who befriends a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) at the end of World War II. A

Next week, new movies include Gretel and Hansel and The Rhythm Section. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.

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