A Separation (2021) of the Script Could Have Made Two Distinct Better Movies
First Non-Festival Release: April 30, 2021 (Theatrical Release)
Director: William Brent Bell
Writer: Nick Amaedus, Josh Braun
Runtime: 107 Minutes
Starring: Rupert Friend, Violet McGraw, Madeline Brewer
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
Embroiled in a bitter custody battle, unemployed comic book writer Jeff (Rupert Friend) struggles to break free from his fantasy world to adeptly take care of his young daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw). On her way to pick up their daughter from him his wife, Maggie (Mamie Gummer), is run over by a hit and run driver. Suddenly, Jeff faces the reality of fatherhood whilst trying to prevent Maggie’s father (Brian Cox) from getting full custody of Jenny. Amidst the family drama, terrifying specters haunt the family brownstone, and they aren’t too keen on letting Jeff succeed at his second chance at fatherhood.
Despite promising art direction and startling imagery, Separation is a lukewarm retread of most modern haunters.
Separation fails to conjure up either meaningful scares or quality storytelling. Tonally jarring and oddly paced, this horror film cobbles together genre conventions from different subgenres in the least satisfying manner possible. The cast struggles to sell the film with Madeline Brewer giving the liveliest performance as the babysitter who cannot contain her lust for Jeff. Rubert Friend looks aloof throughout the film, almost like he is still processing his decision to be there while Brian Cox offers his presence as what amounts to a mildly annoyed grandfather. All are capable actors wasting their talents on woefully thin characters.
Aside from Jeff, no one in the film receives a true character arc. Furthermore, their behavior and actions change without warning in ways to serve the plot more than anything. Most of these abrupt changes happen after the “first ending” of the film. Jeff is an odd character with truly baffling development. While he does make amends with those in his life and attempt to better himself, there’s a real lack of reckoning. It’s almost like his almost divorce and wife’s tragic death happened to him rather than happened to everyone in the wake. He sleepwalks through life in the easiest way for someone who is teetering on the brink of mental and social collapse.
The film also does a disservice by painting its female characters as various levels of crazy. Maggie is depicted as a spiteful and vindictive partner whose only “growth” occurs off screen in the afterlife as she haunts her husband and daughter. Samantha is pretty much blinded by her attraction to the otherwise aloof and uninterested Jeff. This leaves Jenny, the child who talks to her dead mother for most of the film. I’m unsure if it is done on purpose but it gets tedious. It’s all weighed down on a ham-fisted morality tale note which posits the act of separating can show you who you are, both at your worst and best.
Undoubtedly, the best aspect of Separation is the inspired art design and startling imagery. The film works as a living version of Jeff’s comic books, which allows for a wealth of creativity and unsettling ideas. Thankfully, the ideas Jeff commits to page are intense and suitably startling for a supernatural horror film. If the story took a different direction, these creatures might have been more terrifying. There’s something less scary about Separation but more so uncanny about these manifestations. From the way they appear and move they occupy a weird space of looking fake and real simultaneously. Unfortunately, this is the only true bright spot in the entire film.
It’s clear to see that some time and effort is put into Separation, unfortunately the result is a mishmash of worn genre tropes and predictable moments of terror. The telegraphed nature of Separation is not only disappointing from those hoping for more mystery but jarring when combined with the bizarre imagery fed throughout the film. Three different films emerge in the end: a plodding family drama that fails to raise any real stakes, a haunted house horror with a carnival of unnerving comic book character demons, and a third portion that leans into spoiler territory, but leans into the most typical and yawn-inducing thrillers of its ilk. Does Separation deserve all the hate it has received? For the most part yes, but if you take the good parts and make a separate movie, it might be salvageable in the end.
Overall Score? 4/10