In Fear (2013)

First published by Sight & Sound, December 2013

20140621-000504-304910.jpg
Synopsis: Ireland, present day. Following a minor run-in with the local pub’s all-male clientèle, Lucy and Tom (who met two weeks earlier) agree to spend the night together in the Kilarney House Hotel en route to a music festival. Conflicting roadside signs lead the couple in circles, and as darkness falls, their disorientation gives way to rising panic. Not long after they are nearly crushed by a falling tree, Lucy sees a masked figure standing behind Tom as he pees. Later they find Lucy’s clothes strewn across the road – and a man drags Lucy from the car before fleeing into the night.

Driving off in terror, they sideswipe Max who, claiming to have been attacked by locals, asks for a lift to the hotel for help. Max eventually reveals that he has been manipulating them all along. After terrorising Lucy into admitting that she would rather Max kill Tom than kill her, Max walks away. Tom goes after Max in a murderous rage, but Max easily breaks Tom’s finger. Out of petrol, Tom and Lucy flee into the dark woods. Lucy returns to find the car’s fuel replenished. Max gives chase, goading her to go faster. Lucy finds Tom dead in the boot, his mouth connected by a tube to the exhaust pipe. At dawn, as Max stands waiting in the middle of the road, Lucy speeds the car towards him.

Review: “Pink or blue?… Running or walking?… Naked or clothed?… Gun or knife?”

Parked in the dark on the side of a country lane, Tom (Iain De Caestecker, The Comedian, Shell) poses these disjunctive questions to his companion Lucy (Alice Englert, Ginger and Rose, Beautiful Creatures) as a kind of (off-)road game designed to distract them both from their current predicament – although his very mention of flight, exposure and weapons also lets all their anxieties return via a back route.

The previous afternoon, driving to a hotel in the Irish backwoods where they hoped to consummate their budding relationship and – maybe – to forge a future together, Tom and Lucy had come to a fork in the road. The sign said they should go left, the map said they should go right – but no matter which way they turned, they kept being led back in circles to this same fork, until a growing sense of uncertainty, disorientation and fear had led Tom to declare: “I’m stopping. There’s no point going on. I don’t know where we’re going,” in words that, like a crossroads, split neatly three ways between the geographical, the psychological and the existential. For the fork in the road, with its unreliable sign, represents a loaded question. Like Tom’s word games, it offers up binary oppositions less mutually exclusive than they first appear, much as the same Tom who in early scenes will boast, “I’m a lover, I’m not a fighter,” will later be seen rolling in the primordial mud with a fellow human whom he expressly intends to kill, while Lucy too will be terrorised into making a false (yet ultimately true) choice between Tom’s life and her own.

There is an external antagonist too in Jeremy Lovering’s In Fear – a malevolent stranger (played by Allen Leech) who, for reasons never explained, plays on the couple’s fears and drives them to transgress their own behavioural norms; but given the unconventional way in which the film was made, with the script and story kept from the two leads so that from one moment to the next they had no idea what was coming around the corner, one might regard this deeply irrational villain as a stand-in for the writer/director himself, manipulating, testing and pushing his human playthings right to – and beyond – the limits of their comfort zones, towards an ending half-planned, half-improvised, and utterly unresolved.

So while all the signs in this vehicular horror thriller may point towards genre scenarios familiar from Roadgames (1981), The Hitcher (1986), Wolf Creek (2005) and Gone (2006), Lovering takes his characters and viewers alike on a circular trip where choices, moral and otherwise, form narrative forks whose divergent paths keep leading in the same (non-)direction. In their confrontation with an evil trickster, Tom and Lucy are shown that what they most fear in the dark cuts both ways, as they perceive with horrified revulsion their own capacity, in extremis, for selfishness and murder. Add to this David Katznelson’s tight camerawork and some very well-managed tension, and Lovering’s impressive feature debut travels an unsettling road to nowhere.

Anton Bitel