The Family

The Family (2021)

The Family has its European première at the Easter Grimmfest, 2022

“How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?”, goes the text that opens The Family. It is a quote from the section in Plato’s Republic on the Allegory of the Cave, advertising that what follows will involve narrow purviews and manipulated, artificial perspectives, far removed from the light of truth.

Instead of a cave, director Dan Slater – co-writing with Adam Booth – gives us an isolated farmstead whose residents – Father (Nigel Bennett) and Mother (Toni Ellwand), their eldest son Caleb (Benjamin Charles Watson), daughters Abigail (Jenna Warren) and Evelyn (Yasmin Mackay), and youngest son Elijah (Onyx Spark) – are as much a family in the Charles Manson mould as a genetic unit (Caleb, for example, is black, whereas the rest are white). Leading a harsh life of agrarian labour and god-fearing austerity, the children toil for their subsistence nourishment under the strict eye of their parents, who feed them an endless torrent of religious constraints while brutally disciplining any perceived transgressions, whether figurative or literal. Stepping outside of their bedrooms at night, let alone beyond the property’s bone-marked perimeter, is a strict taboo. Not knowing any different, they obey and make the most of their miserable existence.

After collapsing with exhaustion in the vegetable patch, little Elijah is nearly drowned by his Father, and then disappears during the night, only to be replaced with Mary (Keana Lynn), a newcomer whose origins are shrouded in mystery, but who shares the family’s faith and has been brought into the fold to become Caleb’s wife. When the Father decides he would prefer to have Mary for himself, tensions emerge, as first Caleb and then Abigail start openly to question not only their Father’s righteousness, but even the very principles and tenets of their entire lives, even as they wonder if escape is ever truly possible. 

Denied all contact with the outside world, and addressing one another with the archaic thous, thees and thines of Middle English (or the Good Book), these children may light their way through the darkness with tallow lamps, yet it is gaslighting which sets the tone here, as they struggle to see the wood for the trees while being fed a false narrative and constantly made to regard any reason or independent thinking on their own part as an incursion of the devilish Abaddon. This farm is run like an authoritarian prison house, admitting no view that contradicts the Father’s and allowing no egress. It is a microcosm or patriarchy, where Daddy, like so many of today’s populist leaders, is a self-serving hypocrite who molests and abuses his hoodwinked followers, bamboozling them with a litany of theistic mumbo jumbo. 

The Family unfolds in a plain style, with natural, often low lighting, and camerawork that typically tracks the childrens’ (sometimes restricted) points of view and tends to overlook, or at least to cut away from, acts of sex or violence. On the one hand, this matches the severity of these characters’ lives, where starvation and other kinds of deprivation are persistent threats, and where the only modern technology in evidence to suggestive that we might not still be in the days of the Pilgrims is Mother’s Mauser rifle and a collection of gas masks used to protect the family whenever a rumbling roar is heard in the sky. On the other,  this spare style – constantly accompanied by Father’s scriptural commentary – emphasises the children’s confinement to a very narrow frame of reference, as the little world that Father has constructed to control his cult-like Family keeps its members away from any external stimulus, and literally in the dark. Dillan Baldassero’s soundtrack of screeching strings and apocalyptic brass ensures that these events are underscored by a dissonance that constantly gnaws at the questionable foundations of Father’s imposed order. There is, right from the start, a strong sense that something here is very wrong.  

Unsurprisingly, Plato’s allegory has often been reappropriated as a metaphor for cinema itself – that cavernous space where projected images and fictive shadow plays become a distorted substitute for the reality beyond. Accordingly the context which the younger characters in The Family lack is provided for the viewer via allusions to other films – e.g. M. Night Shyamalan’s  The Village (2004), Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence (2013), Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), Juan Diego Escobar Alzate’s Luz: The Flower Of Evil (2019), Thomas Robert Lee’s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (2020), and even Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) – which help to fill in the narrative gaps and to cast light on the truths that have been kept from the eyes of these family members. For The Family places itself firmly within this generic/genetic tradition, as yet another film concerned with closed communities and the misuse of paternal authority to keep younger people in check, in line and available for exploitation by their elders – and as such, it is a parable of patriarchy and confined rebellion, as relevant to our own times as to earlier periods of puritanism.

strap: Dan Slater’s claustrophobic ‘cult’ drama depicts a clan caught in its own corrupted, controlling faith on an isolated farmstead

© Anton Bitel