Dangerous To Know (2020)

After a brief, formally titled ‘prologue’ in which Tom Douglas (David Simpson, also the film’s writer, director editor and composer) and Dr Flannagan (Demelza Randall) discuss the borderline personal disorder of Tom’s estranged sister Bridget (Bridget Graham) and Bridget’s recent, risky withdrawal from treatment and medication, Dangerous To Know introduces us to Jordan (Andrew Robert Wilson) and his friend Jun (James An). 

“Don’t be a pussy,” Jun tells a visibly nervous Jordan, as they sit in a parked car outside a house, discussing the woman waiting inside. “She’s 100 pounds, if that, so get in there,” Jun continues, egging his friend on for a fight, “Band-aid the shit out of that bitch, Jordan!” The misogynistic violence of Jun’s words marks these men as the aggressors, and the bag that Jordan gets out of the car’s boot might naturally be regarded as bearing weapons or tools of torture for a nasty home invasion. In fact the bag merely contains ordinary household items which Jordan is returning to Bridget as he formalises his difficult breakup with her.

Part of the inversion of this sequence is that it is Bridget who is the danger – off her meds, with an obsessive attachment to Jordan, and very reluctant to let her sheepish beau go. So frightened is the timid, softly spoken Jordan of his now ex girlfriend that he has felt the need to bring his friend along for backup. “Girlfriends are like horror movie monsters,” Jun will tell him, picking up on this gynophobic theme as the two men drive back to Jordan’s apartment. “They’re hard as fuck to kill off and they always come back for one last scare.” Jun is speaking metaphorically – although when the two friends return to Bridget’s later that evening with the last of her things, she will manically chase them down the street while brandishing a kitchen knife. Here language and genre are slippery, metaphors become realised, and our grasp of what we are watching can readily be reconfigured by an unexpected twist or two. It is an apt introduction to a film where ambiguity and masquerade will come to dominate everything, and where predation turns on a dime. 

Bridget is a monster of sorts, driven by her own erotomaniacal disorder to conceal and manipulate. That night she will attempt suicide, in part because of her desperate unhappiness, but also as a disingenuous attempt to lure Jordan back to her. Thirty days later, she is out of hospital, under a restraining order, and in the care of her psychiatrist Dr Flannagan and her assistant Dannika Smith (Hayley Gray). There is a chance that Bridget can be readmitted to her university course next semester, but on condition that in the meantime she stay in a remote family cabin, continue to take her medication, have all her online activity monitored, and make absolutely no contact with Jordan. Bridget puts on a mask of smiles and acquiescence for her therapists, but she is still utterly fixated on Jordan – until she gets distracted by the alarming presence that she senses in the cabin with her. Unsure whether this is a real home invader or a hallucinatory side effect of her powerful antipsychotic drugs, and even contemplating the notion that the kindly, terminally ill sheriff (Moishe Teichman) who comes out to help might in fact be her creepy stalker, Bridget, like the protagonist of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), hedges her bets across all possibilities, simultaneously arming herself while trying to set up objective tests of her own sanity. This opens up her experiences to more than one reading, as we try to work out whether Bridget’s interiority, or an actual intruder, is the real danger here. 

All this is in fact just the starting point for Dangerous To Know, whose many narrative twists and turns it would be criminally cruel to spoil. The story is propelled by sustained, suspenseful cat and mouse (where we are constantly unsure which is which), but along the way themes of humanity and Nietzschean Übermensch, god and mortality, moral emptiness and teleology are woven into the carefully written screenplay, ensuring that there is plenty of philosophical subtext to all the genre games. For an intimate psychothriller with a small cast and only a few settings, this is unusually long (three hours!) and rather talky, with one character in particular bragging and gloating ad nauseam in a manner that, while certainly establishing both the fibre and flaws of this person, becomes as repetitive as it is repellent – but even if the film could have survived, like one of its dramatis personae, relatively intact with some of its guts cut out, it is never boring, which is in itself a considerable achievement for anything of this duration. Adapting from his own forthcoming novel of the same name, Simpson – who is better known as an author and futurist – proves an accomplished filmmaker, enlivening his feature debut with mobile camerawork and fluid edits, and a score of intense synthesised drones.

Dangerous To Know shows its characters in thrall to a narcissistic psychopath who is pulling all their strings to self-serving, irrational ends – an idea that, in these times, comes with a peculiarly political resonance. Yet if by the end the viewer too feels as gaslit and manipulated as some of the players, then the ultimate master puppeteer is Simpson himself, sadistically manoeuvring us to right where he wants us, and forcing us to be witnesses, whether willing or otherwise, to the calculation of his plotting and the execution of his artistry.

strap: David Simpson’s psychothriller Dangerous To Know sees its erotomaniac antiheroine playing cat & mouse with a home invader – or with her own psyche

© Anton Bitel