In his cluttered, chaotic home office, jovial psychiatrist Alexander Morland (Geoffrey McGivern) has on display a Klein bottle – a paradoxical object whose inside and outside are indistinguishable. “It’s like the bottle version of the Möbius strip,” he explains to his patient Chris (Tom Meeten), before further comparing it to the ouroboros and “eternal return“.
All of these artefacts and concepts, thrown at Chris and viewers alike roughly halfway through The Ghoul, serve also as a mirror to the looping, twisting narrative structure of the film itself. For in his assured feature debut as writer/director, actor Gareth Tunley (Down Terrace, Kill List) presents us with a circular story that bends in on itself, as two different and contradictory viewpoints, both contained within the one conflicted individual, vie to control the representation of events cycling diabolically through his conscience. “I’m in between things,” Chris at one point tells his beloved – and indeed, he is caught up in the duplicitousness of his twinned perspectives.
The film opens (and, Möbius-like, closes) with a car travelling south along the M1 through the night, inevitably passing the North Circular en route – indeed, ‘North Circular’ would have made a good alternative title for The Ghoul. As Chris, a rogue police inspector from the north with a shady past, arrives in London to investigate a peculiar crime scene with his former colleague Jim (Dan Renton Skinner), he must explain how the two murder victims appear to have kept moving towards their assailant even after they were riddled with what should have been fatal shots. When Michael Coulson (Rufus Jones), the landlord of the house where the shootings took place, disappears, strange clippings are discovered in his room suggesting that he is at best a crime-obsessed ‘ghoul’, or at worst the chief suspect. Hoping to get hold of Coulson’s psychiatric records, Chris concocts a plan with police psychological profiler Kathleen (Alice Lowe) that he should feign mental illness in order to become a patient of Coulson’s psychiatrist Helen Fisher (Niamh Cusack). Except that, from these fake, fictive therapy sessions, a different truth will emerge…
The Ghoul plays like a low-budget, contemporary English (head)spin on Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy (2005) or Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010). The paradigm-shifting twist upon which the dual plotting hinges comes unusually front-loaded, allowing the film instead to focus on its protagonist’s confused, increasingly desperate inner states, and on the eternally returning repercussions of one man’s flight from reality. In this dark vision of London as a circular Hell, Tunley has the confidence to leave much of the heavy narrative lifting to the viewer. For while he takes us on this heady round trip whose ultimate destination is a tragedy of mysterious, misremembered motives and Möbian madness, he is also content to give us two maps for the same lost highway, without presuming to tell us which is the more accurate. All the pieces of the puzzle are there, but the parallel pathways offered by Chris’ co-existent insider and outsider POVs lead together – again and again – to a place that neither one alone could reach.
Along with Omer Fast’s Remainder, The Ghoul is the best journey through a damaged brain you will take all year – and the sign of a very impressive new British filmmaking talent.
© Anton Bitel