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'Lucky' Review: New Shudder offering constructs a gaslighting prison from modest but piercing genre-subversion

Natasha Kermani's new movie has whiffs of belonging in the busy time-loop subgenre, but it turns those attributes into a commentary that's all its own.
Credit: Shudder

Fashioning itself as a feature-length ad for home security systems and a commentary on the everyday aggressions – both violent and casual – faced by women, Natasha Kermani’s “Lucky” douses itself in a healthy coat of suspense early on. Smack-dab in the middle of the splash zone is May (Brea Grant, who also wrote the film), a successful author walking through her home one night before turning on the garden lights to find a masked man standing patiently on the other side of the glass. It’s a jump scare as expected as creaking floorboards or flickering lights; it’s what happens next that makes us lose our footing within the situation. May dashes upstairs to wake her husband Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh), and he responds with a strange calm: “That’s the man who comes every night to try and kill us.”

And so the masked man will return the following night, and the night after as well, silently stalking May as she comes to view the intrusions – and her ending them with a golf club swing to the head or knife to the chest, after which the assailant mysteriously vanishes into thin air – as a nightly ritual akin to brushing her teeth. The authorities won’t help her, because they barely believe her. Ted won’t help her, because he stormed off after being confronted by May the morning after that initial break-in, enraged at her justified confusion and ours as he insists, “I can’t change it—this is how things are.”

Even though Ted is physically absent for much of the story, he continues to be such an indirectly threatening force that “Lucky” could be read as a riff on “The Invisible Man.” Meanwhile, the dead-endedness of May’s horror-show circumstances become more and more troubling to consider, to the point where one wishes this was a traditional time-loop prison she could theoretically break out of. But the calendar flips on, and the agitation of being a victim of gaslighting and a maybe-maybe-not-supernatural enemy mounts.

Between a distant scream in a parking garage and a mysterious shard of glass on the dining room table, Natasha Kermani trusts that we’ll pick up on the hints of menace peppering the opening minutes of “Lucky” before menace is fully personified with a mask, knife and Michael Myers-caliber relentlessness. It’s the relationship between them that Kermani initially delights at holding at bay from the audience. A little self-awareness goes a long way in this mischievous horror-satire as it makes a solid attempt at weaving new genre twists and ancient tropes into something more urgent than its parts. Your ultimate satisfaction relies not on how well you can handle its terror, but rather the bluntness by which its statements are delivered, which more often than not softens the popcorn value in favor of an overemphasized thesis over the course of 83 minutes. “Lucky” may not fully play into the “Groundhog Day” formula, but the repetition here has a point nonetheless.

The breadcrumbs trailing towards the main ideas at play are planet-sized: There’s May’s successful career as a women’s self-help guru, and there’s also the title of her latest book, “Go It Alone,” which could’ve easily been an alternate title for the movie. “No one is helped who can’t help themselves,” May says at a post-book-release talk, and right there we have what could’ve been the movie’s tagline. That “Lucky” goes to such lengths to spotlight such specific thematic material is clearly the intention, a way to contrast how worldly machinations – from politics to pop culture – tend to sideline womens’ concerns, if not discard them altogether.

As pointed as its commentary is, and as brief as its runtime is, “Lucky” does eventually arrive at a place where its repurposing of horror expectations threatens to be more memorable than the purpose of that repurposing. Part of that is because of how early and often its messaging comes into focus, and part of it is because Kermani’s making-the-most-of-a-modest-budget direction reaches its expert zenith in a climax slightly more striking for its aesthetic absurdity than its implicit terrors. It’s perhaps the inevitable destination for a movie that can find itself caught between toying with the logistics of its scenario and shaping those incremental tweaks into meaningful dialogue. During the day, May increasingly becomes distracted from work as she diligently, confidently arms herself and her home ahead of the nightly encounters, though Kermani isn’t endeavoring to reach the pitch-black zany heights of a “Happy Death Day” or “Freaky,” movies whose ultimate priorities are to entertain rather than to make us ponder. In “Lucky,” for better and for worse, characters function more as vessels for the screenplay’s themes than carefully constructed personalities.

But while even that aspect would often draw my criticism – and probably would here, were “Lucky” less effective than it is – it has its place within what Kermani and Grant are attempting to do, and largely succeed in saying. The broad contours of May’s situation aren’t unique to her, nor are the implications constricted by the fact most will press play on “Lucky” expecting a traditional home-invasion thriller—and expecting to feel the rush of exhilaration and eventual self-insistence that they’ll likely go to bed that night before comfortably making it through the next day, and the day after that. At its best, “Lucky” throws on the hazard lights to suggest more sinister realities, ones continuously varnished by muting womens’ voices—an act of aggression in and of itself.

"Lucky" is not rated. It's now streaming on Shudder. 

Starring: Brea Grant, Dhruv Uday Singh, Hunter Smith, Kausar Mohammed

Directed by Natasha Kermani

2021

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