Friday, October 18, 2019

Listener Sam Reviews: Eli

Before I watched Eli, I went through the cast and crew, and its director, Ciarán Foy, stood out. He has a unique name, but I couldn’t recall quite where I’d seen it. It turns out, he directed a film from 2012 called Citadel that really stuck with me. It’s about a man whose family is repeatedly brutalized by a pack of feral children. It’s an excellent and oft-overlooked film that at its best feels like a feature-film version of Chris Cunningham’s "Come To Daddy" music video, in the best, most terrifying way.

Foy is also responsible for a made-for-TV flick called The Wilding (which I haven’t seen), and 2015’s Sinister 2, which is a lousy follow-up, but not necessarily poorly directed. Both films heavily feature child-based horror. Seeing that Foy had a track record for making films about creepy kids, and knowing the quality job he did on Citadel, I was excited to see what he could do with Eli

Eli revolves around the titular character, a kid who’s allergic to everything -- a bubble boy -- who when inside, is relegated to a plastic enclosure, and who has to wear a hazmat suit when outside. His parents take him to a special care facility that promises to cure his illness. While there, he’s haunted by ghosts.

From the get-go, Eli presents itself a strange genre mash-up. It has elements of medical, supernatural, haunted house, and creepy-kid horror combined in a way that made me immediately nervous. “How the hell are they going to make this work?” I thought as I passed through the first act. They introduced so much that it seemed impossible to do so and still make a coherent film. Fortunately, Eli is largely successful in this venture, and while the multifarious plot threads are still messy, it ties them up in a satisfying, if campy, way.

The film, in essence, is a mystery. It presents us and Eli (Charlie Shotwell), the titular protagonist, with the task of unraveling just what his illness is. In doing so, the film presents a number of possibilities, clues, and suspects. 

Eli’s father (Max Martini) seems to have anger issues and frequently low-key accuses his wife (Kelly Reilly) of infidelity. The wife and mother, on the other hand, also seems profoundly off, and leads us to think that Eli could be a victim of Munchausen-by-proxy. The doctor they take him to (Lili Taylor) is almost a caricature of a sadistic doctor. He makes a creepy friend at the facility, who might be up to no good. It’s even ambiguous as to whether the ghosts are trying to help or hurt him…

...And we get that all in the first fifteen-or-so minutes. 

Like I said, it’s a lot.

And yet somehow, they manage to pull it off. I’m inclined to credit the writers for this success. Eli is written by Ian Goldberg & Richard Naing, the writing team behind The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and David Chirchirillo, probably best known for 2013’s Cheap Thrills. They manage to somehow cram a ton of different ideas into a singular vision, which ties up in a clever (and yes, maybe a little ridiculous) way that filled me with horror-lover glee.

Within this plot, we get an interesting take on horror. Eli primarily delivers its scares in the form of brutal medical procedures inflicted on a child. Eli has his bones and brain drilled while fully awake and minimally anesthetized, and these sequences are harrowing and uncomfortable. They reminded me of a joke that an old bitter doctor once told me:

At the procedure’s inception, bone-marrow transplants had an extremely high mortality rate and were extremely painful for the patient. -- The joke: Three patients have leukemia and will die without a bone marrow transplant.

The first patient takes their chances and accepts the procedure but dies in agony as the doctors drill into his bones to extract the marrow.

The second patient, still thinking they have a chance, also opts for a bone marrow transplant. They survive the procedure but die in agony due to complications.

The final patient, having seen how the other patients suffered, opts to die instead.

His doctor said, “Excellent. You’ll die, but first, let’s give you a bone marrow transplant!”

I’m not sure it’s actually funny.

Nevertheless, some of the most affecting moments are when the doctors drill into Eli’s femur to inject him directly in the bone marrow. I found myself gritting my teeth and cringing for the entirety of the sequence. The fact that it was inflicted on a child only helped serve its grotesque purpose.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many other scares. The ghost sequences attempt jump scares, but none of them landed for me, and they never seemed to build enough tension to get a great release. I may have winced once or twice, but I never found myself particularly scared, just momentarily startled. This, however, might be a problem with the medium more than the film itself. Being a direct-to Netflix release, I watched this on my home theater, and though I was watching in the dark on a decently large screen with an adequate sound system, I feel like scares just don’t land as well at home as they would have in a theater.

Anyway, beyond the cleverly crafted plot and the medical trauma, the element of Eli that most impressed me was the overall production design. The facility where the film is set is half haunted mansion and half medical facility. The production design and set decoration make it feel simultaneously sterile and barren, and decrepit and dusty. 

Certain elements, such as the airlock that the characters must use to enter and exit the facility, feel like sci-fi set pieces, and have unique designs that tie cleverly into the film's twisty plot. Other sets, like the dining room and bedrooms, are almost surreal in their sparseness. A table and chairs or a bed, nightstand, and cabinet, with virtually nothing else to accompany them. 

The choices are bold, unique, and help immerse us in the world of Eli. This feels particularly important because the setup, at times, feels downright ridiculous. Even though severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) is a real thing that, once-upon-a-time, created a real need for children to live in a bubble, the idea still seems absurd on screen. Because of this, it would be easy for the film to fall into absurdity and surrealism, and at times it skirts the edges but ultimately manages to stay the course.

The final touch that helps solidify Eli’s tight production design is the slick, interesting palette. The house and medical staff therein are drenched in teal, blue, indigo, and violet. Throughout most of the films, this palette is extremely cohesive, and we see little more than highlights in other colors. This helps gloss over some questionable CGI that at times is noticeable, but never really took me out of the film. In fact, there are some computer-generated crane flies that looked great when they showed up.

With regard to the visuals, I also loved the exteriors at the beginning of the film. It features beautiful drone shots of Louisiana. Lush wastelands of overgrown swamps, untended and barren fields, and marshy wetlands, all devoid of humanity, save for our lead family’s car. There’s even a scene at a grimy motel that, while not particularly plot-relevant, gives us a gorgeous sense of the suburban decay that the characters live in.

Finally, the film has some really unique effects work when dealing with the ghosts. They spend a lot of time communicating via fogged/steamed-over glass and mirrors, and the filmmakers use this to deliver some unique scares. In one scene that really stood out, Eli sees a ghost in the fogged section of a mirror, wipes it, and the ghost vanishes. I also liked how the ghosts move at times, vanishing and appearing extremely suddenly and unpredictably. 

Eli is not without its flaws, however, and the performances in particular really fall flat. Maybe I’m being too harsh a critic, but Hereditary really set a new bar for parental grief performances, and the parents in Eli don’t quite surpass it. A lot of the emotion is flatly delivered, and even though it helps serve the film’s many mysteries, it’s too rigid to feel anything other than surreal. 

The best performance by far comes from Charlie Shotwell as Eli, who shows an impressive range of acting skills, and does an especially convincing job at being furious when no one believes that he’s seeing ghosts. Sadie Sink also does a commendable job as Haley, though her role is small. Combined with her performance in seasons 2 and 3 of Stranger Things, she is proving to be an impressive young actress.

I also alluded to some questionable CG. In particular, the exteriors of the house are downright bad. Most of them are unnecessary and only serve to remind us that the film was probably shot on a sound stage on pre-constructed sets. Now, I could be wrong, and these shots may not be CG, but if I'm right, it’s almost worse and would imply some pretty poor choices as to how the shots were used and color-corrected. 

I don’t want to linger on the ending too much, though I think it bears a bit more mention. It just tickled me pink how bonkers it was, and it manages to tie up a ton of loose ends. There’s almost undoubtedly a few plot holes leftover, but I just don’t care. I watch movies to have fun, and I got some genuine goddamn fun from Eli’s finale. You’ll understand when you see it.

Netflix’s horror line up has had its share of ups and downs. They did a great job with Gerald’s Game, The Ritual, and Apostle, but other films like The Perfection, Velvet Buzzsaw, and The Silence have really fallen short. While not the best they’ve released, Eli falls into the better half of Netflix’s horror releases and is a great addition to this year’s slate of Halloween releases.

Eli is available on Netflix as of October 18th, 2019

-Listener Sam

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