You can never really trust mansions in the movies.
When’s the last time the sight of a massive, ivy-wrapped structure sitting in rural isolation and surrounded by fog on the screen was a welcoming one? Cavernous spaces may have seemed initially accommodating in “The Others, “The Beguiled” and “Crimson Peak,” but that’s only before the ostensible luxury of privacy in those films and countless others devolves into places of psychological imprisonment. Even little Beth has to muster up the courage to enter the Laurences’ warm abode in “Little Women,” an otherwise pro-mansion movie. Regardless, spinners of suspense know that suspicion tends to enter our minds when a story’s characters enter a mansion.
And so, like cinematic clockwork, suspicion blooms for both audience and protagonist when Tamara Lawrance’s Charlotte, a Black woman, apprehensively arrives at the gated country home belonging to the family of her white boyfriend, Ben (Edward Holcroft), to begin “Kindred.” A simple but mostly effective fever-dream thriller that represents the feature debut for its writer-director, Joe Marcantanio, “Kindred” doesn’t sneak around what shape it will take. We notice the silhouette early on; the score (by Jack Halama and Natalie Holt) is scratchy, Carlos Catalán’s cinematography moody and the tone of the opening minutes residing so comfortably within the realm of Gothic that we have no choice but to raise our eyebrow at how welcoming Ben’s remaining relatives – mother Margaret (an excellent Fiona Shaw) and stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden) – appear to be to the couple. At least until Ben and Charlotte reveal they’re planning to move half a world away, to which mother dearest unleashes a furious tirade about Ben’s needing to stay close to what, the implication suggests, is a tightly corked family.
We’re even more skeptical when Charlotte wakes up at the home later on—her partner dead from a bizarre head injury, a child now growing in her belly (despite her being on birth control), and Margaret and Ben gently insisting she remain so they can look after her. But signs of devious intentions are everywhere. Charlotte notices bits of crushed tablets in the drinks Margaret provides, and there’s an aura of slow-emerging malevolence in Ben’s eagerness to accompany her to the hospital and prepare a nursery in the very place she keeps insisting she won’t stay at for much longer. In a movie where every move and uneasy smile demands interrogation by its audience, we wonder: Might Margaret have had a supernatural role in killing her son in order to keep a close, controlling eye on the mother of her grandchild?
The movie doesn’t go far enough to suggest one way or another, which is part of “Kindred’s” frustrations and its familiar-tasting situational strangeness. Fueled by ideas as bare as they are intriguing, the movie is a riff on “Get Out” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” and it does find new substance in the fusion of those genre standouts—even if the movie as a whole is not as terrifying, as memorable or as sheerly engrossing as its clearest influences. The notion of an affluent white family believing they know what’s best for a Black mother-to-be is a provocative one in this or any other year, though as Charlotte finds herself increasingly at the will of her hosts, there’s a forthrightness to Marcantanio and Jason McColgay’s screenplay that is a bit too blunt to allow the drama’s inherent prickliness to flourish. Because the film projects, very brightly and very early on, that this story’s thematic destiny is one of literal and emotional imprisonment, our attention turns to searching for clues of motivation. Here, Marcantanio chooses to defer, providing a tapestry of broad insinuations and shadowy motifs that emphasize “Kindred” as a story Edgar Allen Poe could have conjured up.
The problem is that ambiguity doesn’t seem to be Marcantanio’s purpose so much as it is a crutch, and the narrative of “Kindred” doesn’t develop so much as it coasts, with shallow reserves of consideration, toward conclusions that we glimpse from the first 20 minutes. Hints of familial loyalty born out in violence and the occasional mention of a “condition” that Charlotte’s own mother suffered from stretch the screenplay’s themes of motherhood as best they can, but the film is largely unconvincing in its attempts to link Margaret’s weariness with Charlotte’s initial apathy. The movie’s closest thing to a twist feels like the least common denominator of a gaslighting-centered narrative being deployed, and our hopes for some spurt of cleverness in the script fade.
What “Kindred” lacks in clarity of character it instead makes up for in its dynamic performances, and in the creepy atmosphere of Derek Wallace’s production design that is borderline pungent. Lawrance, also appearing in Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology this fall, unleashes primal screams that drill deeper into the claustrophobia of her situation more effectively than any line of dialogue. Lowden’s turn, meanwhile, is one of the movie’s most intriguing elements; as Thomas, he’s affectionate but intimidating, cautious but controlling. He’s the bent-corner wild card in a movie that otherwise lacks a much-needed unpredictability factor, and even if “Kindred” doesn’t necessarily end with any story-upending revelations, it’s his chemistry with Lawrance – as the would-be stepsister with whom Thomas comes increasingly close to crossing the line – that provides a formulaic but wrenching finale with its most potent sting.
"Kindred" is not rated. It will release in select theaters and be available to rent on digital VOD platforms Friday.
Starring: Tamara Lawrance, Jack Lowden, Fiona Shaw, Edward Holcroft
Directed by Joe Marcantanio
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