A Cloud So High had its world première at the Glasgow FrightFest 2022
A Cloud So High opens with a classic establishing shot: a road sign for Schooner, California that situates the viewer in a highly particularised place. It then shows local ex-cop and realtor Gene ‘Sackler’ Sarling (John Savage, The Deer Hunter) listening to part of an abusive message left on his phone, and a series of monochrome to-camera interviews (shown on a computer) with former Schooner journalists, police officers and residents about how the return of Gene’s son Paul was a ‘black cloud’ for this small town. All this is punctuated by shots of Schooner’s suburbia, by newspaper clippings and by abstract cutaways to a gun and a balaclava. In other words, writer/director Christopher Lee Parson’s feature debut is to be a mixed-media portrait (in mosaic, and in negative) of an individual, and a community, all front-loaded with a sense of impending doom. It is also, for all its leaning on the tropes of ‘true crime’, a work of fiction – a ‘mockumentary’ (though not of the funny variety) about a place and persons who do not exist, but who are nonetheless recognisable as Everypeople from Everytown, America, about to be confronted with something irrational and abhorrent that comes from within. This story has every appearance of being ‘ripped from the headlines’ – just not from the headlines of the equally non-existent The Andreas Schooner Times (pages from which we regularly see on screen).
That said, A Cloud So High is presented only in part as a faux-documentary. For while some of its constituent materials – the interviews, the TV and radio news clips, the endless files and clippings, the CCTV footage – offer a post-eventum reconstruction of three harrowing years of Schooner life (and death) in a format that brings an ‘objective’, authenticating, outsider perspective to what has happened, we are also shown those events from the inside, via the highly subjectified point-of-view of their unreliable protagonist Paul Sarling (Aaron Perilo). Returned to his hometown after serving abroad for some years in the armed services, 22-year-old Paul moves in with his father Gene, despite their history not being a good one, and tries to settle back into civilian life – but after he and his old schoolfriend Karina Ashleigh (Michelle Lee) come under a random attack from three masked assailants that puts him in hospital and Karina in a coma, something in the young war veteran snaps, and he slowly graduates from a years-long spree of ransacking other people’s houses and stalking a complete stranger (the bewildered Muriel Horton, played by Stephanie Lemelin), to executing acts of cold-blooded murder.
The transformation of Paul from boy next door to masked menace comes heavily psychologised. If (‘if’ is a word worth stressing here) Paul regularly meets with Dolores White (Jessica Lundy), the new mental health specialist at Schooner University whose expertise Paul has sought out, then these sessions both mark Paul’s awareness from early on that he needs help, and give him an opportunity to discuss his interior life. Yet these prove to be a hallucinatory forum, as Parson cuts wildly between Paul seated variously before Dolores, or alone in his car, or on the couch at home watching a video of the sessions, even as the conversation between therapist and patient continues, impossibly, across all three settings. It is a disorienting effect, capturing Paul’s dissociation and delusion, and undercutting any confidence that what we see and hear is real (as opposed to a deranged fantasy in Paul’s head). Indeed, much of Paul’s experience is cut up into delirious spatiotemporal leaps and distorted, intrusive voices, all suggestive of severe mental breakdown if not psychogenic fugue.
When Dolores, made aware of Paul’s discomfort with her in their first session together, asks, “Should I move further away?”, Paul corrects her: “It’s farther. Farther”, leading Dolores to concede, “It is farther, isn’t it?” In a dialogue whose very reality we are already doubting, this odd, emphatic exchange involves what might be regarded as a Freudian slip. For Paul, everything really does come back to his father Gene (whose very name betokens his contribution to Paul’s genetic legacy), an undemonstrative figure with his own demons (anger, alcoholism, depression), who hides his affection beneath a gruff, disapproving exterior, and whom Paul had once accused of inappropriate touching and sexual abuse. “You did this to me. You made me this way,” says a clearly unhinged Paul, aiming a gun at the sleeping Gene’s head. Yet Paul has mummy issues too. In practically the first conversation that he has with his father upon his return home, Paul quizzes Gene about his former marriages. “What happened to your second wife?”, Paul asks, referring to his own mother, “Why did she leave?” It is not hard to discern Paul’s sense of abandonment and deep yearning for his absent mother in his subsequent fixations upon white women of a certain type and age (Muriel, Dolores).
Yet there are other explanatory frames for Paul’s spiralling delinquency. Who knows what traumas he has brought back with him from the Middle East? Certainly one low-angle shot of a helicopter passing overhead (its rotor blades amplified on the soundtrack) evokes the opening sequence of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and with that the insanity of war. At the same time, Paul appears to be triggered into action specifically by the assault on him and Karina – unless that was in fact, as Karina’s father (Daniel Riordan) implies, Paul’s own first violent crime, and the assailants were entirely Paul’s invention. There are even those – the self-styled “Sarling’s darlings” – who reinterpret Paul’s outrages as acts of righteous vigilantism. After all, Paul’s first two murder victims were interrupted by him as they were assaulting, and preparing to rape, a woman (who regards her saviour as a hero). Of course, Paul’s many other deeds are far harder, indeed impossible, to justify, except from his own unbalanced point of view, or when mediated to conspiratorial men as disaffected and angry as Paul himself. And there are of course the media, the documentarians and the feature filmmakers, all keen to a greater or lesser degree to capitalise on Paul’s past excesses, exploiting them for the public’s entertainment (in a self-critical reflex of Parson’s own film). Like Andrew Piddington’s The Killing of John Lennon (2006) or Marc Meyers’ My Friend Dahmer (2017), this portrait of an emerging murderer is also an uncomfortable, accusatory anatomisation of who we all are.
As A Cloud So High offers both inside and outside views of the inexplicable, we are left with a central character who must be pieced together from inconsistent fragments, and a community which becomes similarly at odds with itself as it is left reeling by Paul’s bizarre, predatory behaviour. This is a sometimes – but not always – sympathetic portrait of a mentally ill man, and of the way that mental illness can intrude into our family homes and even into an uncomprehending society at large. Meanwhile the many narrative ambiguities accommodated in the film’s unstable structure will leave some viewers retracing every loose thread, and wondering if the madness, obsession and criminality might not be Paul’s (or at least Paul’s alone), but distributed among several of the characters, each with their own agenda and motive for creating mayhem. Parson has crafted something messy and monstrously unwieldy – which, more than any reality effect or faux-documentary posturing, makes this fictive tale seem convincingly true to life. Complicated and confounding, stylised and sophisticated, this is Taxi Driver for a new generation.
strap: Christopher Lee Parson’s faux-documentary feature debut shows a mentally ill young man’s spiralling rampage against his community
© Anton Bitel