“Marionette” is a perfectly-gloomy but overly-subdued Scottish thriller pretty much wholly undone by a contorted “twist” that derails its third act.
Dutch director Elbert van Strien, remaking and expanding on a short film he made, rounded up a decent cast and shot in Blairs, Aberdeen in late fall for atmosphere. But in turning this evil-child-controls-his-shrinks’-life thriller into an exploration of religious determinism, he over-reaches and turns a low-heat drama into something approaching nonsense.
It’s a mystery about “what happens next,” and a disturbed, curly-mopped child (Elijah Wolf) who seems to control it, or at least has advanced knowledge of what his new psychotherapist (Thekla Reuten) is about to experience.
And Dr. Winter, judging from the ranting therapist (Peter Mullan) we’ve seen immolate himself in the film’s opening scene, is sure to “go through some things.”
Winter’s left her work in upstate New York for a job at Victoria Clinic in the overcast gloom of Scotland for reasons she doesn’t want to share.
“I like rain.”
The serious-minded 40ish Winter tackles her predecessor’s patients. And one of them quickly and thoroughly gets under her skin. Manny (Wolf) is a dead-eyed child of 10 or so who frantically, angrily draws dark scenes of death and destruction — floods, drownings, car wrecks.
“No one likes what I say,” he deadpans, “because of what I can do.”
What can he do?
“Make things happen.”
What can you make happen?
“You!” That’s right, Doc. “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t be here.”
When Winter rolls up on a car wreck in the damp Aberdeen night, she gets a clue that this little creep either foresaw it or caused it.
As she digs inter her predecessor’s notes, Winter starts to fret over her flashbacks to the married life she used to have in New York and ponder how much control she has in this new relationship (Emun Elliott) she’s slowly slipping into at the Scots book club she’s joined.
That’s where the great theological discussion that van Strein aims for is suggested — a heated debate over free will or if “we’re marionettes in some sadist’s fantasy — the existence or non-existence of God and the like.
Any movie with Scotland, Peter Mullan, pubs, a swarthy romantic lead with a wooden sailboat and a Great Mystery of Life book-club subtext has my attention. But “Marionette” is too obvious, too convoluted, too tame and entirely too slow to get going.
Reuten (“Red Sparrow”) makes an interesting lead, but not a particularly compelling one.
Still, you’ve got a great candidate for the lead in a “Children of the Damned” remake, man. DO something with him. There’s little here that thrills, frightens or alarms.
Every move on this film’s chessboard isn’t pre-ordained, but is given away well before its payoff.
We know who we’ll hear a warning from, who will be put in jeopardy and who among the clinic’s staff (the great Scots actor Bill Paterson) either “knows” something or “knows” nothing will be the skeptical stick in the mud.
And as the finale talks and talks its way into “explaining” all this, tying is up in a “neat” if seriously half-arsed bow, we figure out just who the real marionettes are — sitting through all this, puppets without the chance of a proper payoff on offer from our puppet master.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Thekla Reuten, Elijah Wolf, Emun Elliot, Rebecca Front, Peter Mullan and Bill Paterson
Credits: Directed by Elbert van Strien, scripted by Ben Hopkins and Elbert van Strien, based on a short film by Elbert van Strien. A Rock Salt release.
Running time: 1:52