Patrycja Kepa and Acoryé White’s debut feature opens with two prologues, one short, one long – and both connected by the old trinket box of the title. In the first, a figure in white gloves and baseball cap thoroughly cleans out a house (decorated with photographs of a mixed-race couple) and carefully restores a discarded necklace to the old box, before taking a rubbish bag to a van which already contains two plastic-wrapped bodies. Although this cleaner works to orchestral music playing on an antique grammophone, the house’s fixtures and the van are plainly modern, so that there is a suggestion of the past persisting into, and overlapping with, the present.
The second, longer prologue is set very much in the past, on the outskirts of Clayton, Alabama in 1936, and is a primal scene. In Freudian psychoanalysis, that expression is normally applied to the first, formative occasion that a child witnesses their parents having sex, and imagines it as an act of violence, but here little Mary Ann Davis (Zia Carlock) in fact spies on her older sister Judith (Gracie Davis) who is in bed with her African-American lover Abe (Joe Anthony Gordon) – in a union entirely illicit for those segregationist times – and then witnesses the bloody death of her thoroughly racist, lynch-minded father James (Barry Ratcliffe) in the chaotic aftermath of his return to the house. That night, the trauma and perplexity of these associated spectacles send Mary Ann to the basement, where she discovers and dons the necklace from the trinket box, and appears to become possessed.
The rest of the film is set in the present day, but issues of race will prove as much of a hand-me-down from the past as that box. Mixed-race couple Ava (Augie Duke) and Mike Wilson (co-writer/co-director White) have just moved into the modern home from the film’s opening sequence, where they are looking for peace and quiet after the stresses of their previous working life in New York City, and of a unspecified trauma that they have experienced. Very much in love, and planning to lay down a new future for themselves with a baby, they settle into a routine of Mike commuting to his office and Ava working from home – but then their palsied neighbour Mrs Davis (Sandra Ellise Lafferty), not just old but old-fashioned and unreconstructed, gifts Ava that now familiar necklace in its trinket box. No sooner has Ava put the necklace on than everything changes in her relationship with Mike, as the cursed history of the object – and of the country – moves in with them, and once there, proves hard to evict.
Mike and pregnant Ava may, like the biracial writer/directors of Trinket Box, be breaking down the Mason-Dixon boundaries between black and white which criss-cross the map of US history, but arrayed against their newfound domestic harmony is a parallel counterforce with its own generational traditions. For the undermining entity that is introduced maliciously to their home by their backward-looking white neighbours is a monstrous metaphor for America’s long legacy of racism, which can destroy from within as much as from without. This allegorical element, so foregrounded as barely even to be subtext, is what keeps the film interesting even when the principal narrative at times seems overstretched and underpaced, and when recurring night scenes are shot in a murky darkness that risks losing the viewer.
The evil in that trinket box goes back (at least) to the internal confusion and conflict carried by a little girl who witnessed the harrowing consequences of a polarised nation, and keeps adding more, new mementoes to its own sinister collection. For even as America changes and progresses over time, it must live next door to its own conservatism and is still haunted by its past, so that the Pandora’s box of its own divisions can at any time be reopened. Most of the film may be set within the confines of the house, but to confirm the truth locked into this horror parable, you need only look out the window at what is happening in the world beyond.
strap: Patrycja Kepa and Acoryé White’s curse horror allegorises an America still haunted by its history of racism
© Anton Bitel