Woe (2020)

Writer/director Matthew Goodhue’s feature debut Woe begins with a series of unsettling sights and sounds. As a young bearded man (Adam Halferty) comes out of  house’s backdoor carrying something in a large garbage bag which he embraces tenderly before putting it down, picking up a shovel and digging into the ground, we can hear the sound of buzzing flies and a phone ringing unanswered – until the recorded voice of Thomas Dennistoun (Russell Becker) comes in on the answering machine, requesting that the caller either leave a message, or contact Thomas’ brother and business partner Pete (James Russo). The bearded man, however, cannot hear these, as he blocks them out with headphones. Instead, what he hears is a disjointed male voice telling him “You can’t control it… your biggest mistake is thinking you can.”

Much in this prologue is shrouded in mystery. It is not yet clear, for instance, that the bearded man is Thomas’ son, Charlie; nor that those noisy insects are in fact wasps rather than flies, nested in a garden tree; nor that Thomas took his own life in the family car exactly a year ago, and that Charlie is staying in his father’s house to try to clean out the cobwebs and lay some troubles to rest, even as that same car remains parked out front as a constant reminder of the family’s tragedy. It is not even clear whether that male voice – in fact Thomas’ – playing in Charlie’s ears is coming through his headphones, or is a product of his fracturing mind. Yet it is clear that something is amiss, and that Charlie is not all there, cutting himself off from the world. When his sister Betty (Jessie Lynn Her) and her fiancé Benjamin (Ryan Kattner) knock on the front door to gather him for a visit to the adjacent graves of Thomas and Uncle Peter, Charlie does not answer. The lights are on but nobody’s home. 

While Betty and Charlie’s mother Bridget (Flora Rubenhold) is distracted with arrangements for her daughter’s coming marriage, and while Betty is lost in her own unresolved feelings about both the anniversary of her father’s death and the beginnings of a new family for herself, it is left to Benjamin, a good-natured park ranger, to observe, and show concern for, Charlie’s mental decline: the near total withdrawal from others, the fixation on never-ending house work, the telltale bandages on his wrists. 

“I think I’m seeing things that aren’t real,” the barely communicative Charlie will eventually confide in his old neighbour Russ (DeVaughn LaBon). After all, the wasp nest that Charlie has several times destroyed, the family dog Friendo that he has repeatedly had to bury, and even Uncle Pete whose gravestone lies next to Thomas’, all seem to keep coming back; the house on which Charlie has been working in isolation for the best part of a year shows little sign of improvement; and a terrifying shadowy figure haunts him. “Who says it isn’t real?”, responds Russ – and as Betty too, at her own emotional crossroads, starts seeing both Friendo and that dark spectre, the difference between the actual and the merely figurative becomes ever difficult to determine. 

“Look, grief is a motherfucker,” Benjamin will later say to Charlie, recounting how when he had his own sadness inside of him, he too “just couldn’t shake it.” Indeed grief, in all its crippling tenacity, is a central theme of Woe, inscribed in its very title. It is obvious in Charlie, who cannot bring himself even to leave his father’s house, who has internalised a menacing version of his father’s voice, and who seems to be cohabiting with ghosts from the past that he cannot shake. Yet it is also more subtly apparent in Betty, who has taken to falling asleep on the couch as her father once did, and who whimsically decides to sell her father’s car, as though to weed out the seat of the family’s trauma, and then just as whimsically changes her mind, unable quite to let go. 

Yet Woe seems preoccupied as much with hereditary madness as with loss. Dark ideation, suicidal tendencies, schizophrenic voices in the head, a ‘black dog’ both literal and metaphorical that cannot be entirely put down – this is the genetic legacy that the father has bequeathed to his children, and that risks gradually consuming them as it did him. Though siblings, Charlie and Betty never once exchange a word with each other, or even occupy the same frame, so that their mutual alienation is encoded in the film’s very grammar. Here everything is pervaded with an uncanny irrationality, so that the open question of what exactly has taken place in the film’s climactic sequence will linger with the viewer like an intrusive thought.

It is a persistently ambiguous film, where the conventional boundaries between the living and the dead, the real and the hallucinatory, have collapsed, and where indeterminacy itself casts a long shadow over this family’s future bliss. For perhaps woe can never be fully buried.  

strap: Matthew Goodhue’s feature debut is a psychological ghost story in which a haunted family cannot quite bury its grief

© Anton Bitel