8:37 Rebirth opens with a bang that will reverberate throughout the film. In a Turkish-owned corner store in the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia, we see nine-year-old Sergei Radic (Benjamin Walker) staring in horror, and 18-year-old, bloody-faced Jared Peters (Kylar Johnson) holding a gun. At first the incident itself is not shown, just its immediate aftermath from two points of view – and the rest of Juanita Peters’ feature debut as both director and co-writer (with Joseph LeClair and Hank White) will anatomise that moment of violence while tracing its ramifying impact on the lives of these two boys – and of the first policeman (Callum Dunphy) to the scene – over the decades to come.
A quarter of a century after shooting dead Sergei’s beloved father Petra (Hal Tatlidil) on that fateful night, Jared (Glen Gould) is released from prison, having, despite a record of good conduct inside, served his full sentence rather than sought earlier parole. Hangdog and taciturn, he moves into an apartment, and although he gets off on a bad foot with the aggressive landlord Houseman (Daniel Lillford), the two will gradually become friends, united in loneliness, guilt and a yearning to make amends.
Meanwhile Sergei (Pasha Ebrahimi) is now happily married to Nora (Amy Trefry) with a young son of his own, Richard (Liam Murphy) – and although we first see Sergei dressed in a superhero’s cape and the apple of Richard’s adoring eye, Sergei has never quite moved on from the incident that has both haunted and defined him for 25 years, and nurses an anger that is unhealthy to himself and others. John Bedford (Mark A. Owen), the police officer who arrested young Jared at the scene all those years ago and who has kept in touch with Sergei ever since, tries to reassure the family man that Jared no longer poses any threat, but the release of his father’s killer sends Sergei, who has had problems with mental illness before, into a downward spiral of paranoia and rage.
Through careful cross-cutting, we see the parallel lives that these men lead. Both struggle to liberate themselves from the historic incident that binds them together, both are tormented by what they did and did not do on that night, and both carry notepads in which they scribble and sketch as an attempt to process their unresolved feelings about what happened. For college professor Sergei, the rigorous logic of mathematics is the avenue through which he tries to reformulate a past that he is still unable fully to accept, while for the taciturn Sergei, drawing and – since he got out of prison – painting have become his outlets for expression. In this clash of vindictiveness and contrition that is also a collision of science and art, Jared finds peace and the possibility of ‘moving ahead’ in paintings that are inflected with Mi’kmaq myths of rebirth, while Sergei, like the on-screen mathematicians in Darren Aronofksy’s Pi (1998), Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) and John Madden’s Proof (2005), risks losing his mind and his family in trying to work through his trauma as though it were a mathematical problem in need of an elegant solution.
Much as 8:37 Rebirth opens with a primal scene, it ends with its renaissance, as the armed three-way stand-off is restaged. “If we change just one variable,” Sergei had told his son of a mathematical crux in an earlier scene, “we get a completely different answer.” Yet what Sergei, for all his genius, seems incapable of grasping is that you cannot change the past, merely move on from it. In essaying to alter what has already happened, Sergei may just be creating more sorrow to be passed down to the next generation, with his own variable rôle recast from victim to villain. Here, at 8:37, the wish fulfilment of revenge is revealed for all its harrowing hollowness, (re)creating a tragedy from which nobody can emerge the hero.
Strap: Juanita Peters’ feature debut anatomises a complex violent event and its traumatic reverberations decades into the future
© Anton Bitel