Splinter had its international première at FrightFest 2022
After a prologue in which uncomprehending little Scott Wills (Michael P.J. Marston) is left by his distraught mother Margaret (Amanda Brooke Lerner) to be raised by his aunt and uncle in Baltimore, we see old carpet being scraped from a floor to reveal gradually not just the wooden boards beneath, but also the title Splinter, its ’T’ stylised to resemble a tree with long roots beneath. Writer/director Tom Ryan’s film will indeed turn out to be concerned with trees (of both the wooden and family varieties). For, having, as a child, been abandoned with little warning or obvious cause by both his parents, now, some 37 years later, Scott (Jim Thalman) is attempting to reattach these severed roots by moving back into the Delaware property that he has just inherited from his late, estranged mother, and intends to make his old, barely remembered family home a new one for his wife Teresa (Kristin Muri) and teenaged daughter Olivia (Quincy Saadeh). Yet those wooden floorboards which Scott has now exposed bite back, giving him a splinter which will quickly ramify in its mysterious effects, irrevocably altering the Wills’ lives for another generation or two.
Time operates differently for trees. Their growth is measured in years, decades, centuries, even millennia – and the forests that they form are epoch-spanning biospheres and repositories of a long, long history beyond a merely human time scale. Splinter, whose very title refers to a tiny fragment of a tree, deals with a much more compressed chronology. For while it does initially leap four decades from one generation down to the next, its principal narrative unfolds over less than two days. During that truncated time period all this happy family’s hopes and dreams for the future will (again) be cruelly cut off, as Scott must reckon with his own genetic legacy and its cursed consequences, in a community which, like most of the modern United States, has been built on land – and from materials – with their own histories and traditions, and on blood spilt and ecology destroyed in the questionable name of progress. All this is a big burden for one man to have to carry on his back – but here nature’s revenge works slowly, on what might be regarded as an arboreal timeline, with Scott being punished for the sins of the father and the atrocities of what is, after all, a relatively short history of white colonial American patriarchy.
Splinter itself is also, at a mere 55 minutes, very short even by horror feature standards, but feels much longer. Part of this is down to the sense of dread and inevitability that permeates these events, as indigenous irrationality imposes its ancient rhythms onto a present-day suburban, even soapy domestic drama. Yet there is also something amiss with the pacing and editing, as scenes play out beyond their narrative beats, as the past layers itself into the present in recurring visions, and as dialogue goes round in circles (and is repeated in flashbacks) like the rings in a tree’s trunk, and as everything, from the exposition to the characterisation, feels just a little but wooden. It is almost as though we are being invited to experience these brief moments in time from the longer view of a tree’s perspective, as a dysfunctional family is reunited and renatured.
strap: Tom Ryan’s barking tale of trees and transformation sees a happy if rootless family punctured by inherited sin and ecological curse.
© Anton Bitel