Body at Brighton Rock begins with a vista of national parkland. DP Hannah Getz’s camera remains fixed, with only the slight rustling of leaves that frame the wide shot giving any indication that this is not a still. The green of the forest and the blue of the sky all seem to have been overtly touched up in post-production, making them almost tackily hyperreal. The opening credits that are projected onto the sky are a gaudy yellow, in a cursive font. These are the visual tropes of a picture postcard – indeed, actual picture postcards will be shown over the closing credits. And so our introduction to Brighton Rock National Park (fictive, but evidently unrelated to Graham Greene’s similarly named novel) focuses on its most picturesque, commodifiable aspects – all the pretty spectacle of the wilderness, with none of the underlying dangers. This is the great outdoors as touristic playground.
Guide Wendy (Karina Fontes) works very much at Brighton Rock’s tourist end. Impunctual and somewhat flaky, she is considered by the others to be “an indoors kid” – barely a step up from clumsy, incompetent Davey (Martin Spanjers) who has recently been relegated to “dogshit bag duty”. So Wendy agrees to trade her shift at the Park Centre’s information booth for another posting signs on a rough trail, in part just to get her ‘pretty hands’ dirty and to prove – both to the others and to herself – that there is a real ranger in her. “It’s just a walk in the woods,” she tells her friend Maya (Emily Althaus). “How hard can it be?”
Soon, through a combination of carelessness and mishap, Wendy will end up off the beaten track and without a map, deep in bear country with only a human corpse for company, as she waits for the park authorities, police and coroner hopefully to come find her in the morning. This is to be her long, dark night of the soul, as she sits with the cadaver, unsure whether he was a victim of accident or crime, and her sense of disorientation, trauma and paranoia settles in. “It’s just me and him,” Wendy reports on her failing radio, “I mean, the body – there’s no one else up here.” Yet it is not long before she is visited by the slippery woodsman Red (Casey Adams) – and there are other noises off around her makeshift camp. As her fears take over, Wendy must draw on resources she never knew she had, and face down, even fight off, her innermost anxieties. Meanwhile, as in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Swiss Army Man (2016), the corpse beside Wendy takes on the rôle of sounding board, imaginary friend and memento mori for its breathing companion, caught in a critical space between life and death.
Roxanne Benjamin had previously produced the V/H/S films, contributed segments to the anthologies Southbound (2015) and XX (2017), and scripted and helmed the short Final Stop (2018), but Body at Brighton Rock is her first feature film as writer/director, so that she finally gets to flex her creative muscles in long format. The film starts almost like a goofy character comedy, before placing the klutzy, clueless Wendy in a tense, perilous situation where, as Maya has warned, she’s “gonna have to be, like, tougher.” The result is an outdoors ordeal in which both character, and in the end genre too, are pushed to their very limits. Wendy’s night in the woods, grounded by the natural surroundings but also coming with a hallucinatory, existential terror, is as much psychological journey as backwoods bivouac – and in her short stay, Wendy discovers what, when push comes to shove, she is truly made of. This is a very accomplished near one-hander, shot in California’s aptly named Idyllwild and turning that postcard location into a frightening, haunted place where threats are everywhere and the spectre of death is always only a few feet away.
© Anton Bitel