Every filmmaker hopes to get a rise out of her or his audience, to provoke us in some way or other, push our buttons.
So writer-director Zach Koepp can take a bow for achieving that, at least, with his debut feature. I started out exasperated and settled into a seething rage over the 73 minute long miscalculation titled “The Willowbrook.”
A soft-spoken, under-acted, near-whispered “thriller” that does no credit to the word or the genre, it’s about a cultish “influencer” who lures her “followers” to a remote estate house in the middle of winter, people who need to “heal” and “trust the process” on their way to a “transformation.”
Then she drugs them and won’t let them leave. Apparently.
Lacey (Jessica Bishop) likes things very quiet, and “loses it” when there’s noise. She needs silence as the backdrop to her online affirmations about “trusting in the flow of life.”
So there’s a reason for how quiet everybody is, the dull monotone of line-readings. As you can imagine, that makes for a serious insomnia cure of a movie.
Jordan (Erin Day) has been invited to The Willowbrook, owned by Lacey Willowbrook, after an overdose. Her also-orphaned “brother” (Lawrence J. Hughes) comes along for support. But Ace doesn’t question Lacey’s diagnosis of “co-dependency” with Jordan. He accepts quarters up the hill, away from the big house, at The Farm, where the creepy, trigger-happy “muscle” in this operation, Dakota (Chris Boudreaux) holes up.
The film’s opening scene is a woman (Jay White) fleeing across the snow in her bare feet and pajamas. It’s also pretty quiet — save for a gunshot. We meet the mute guitar player (Kyle Klein) and see Lacey lie to family members who come looking for missing “guests.”
What exactly is going on here? What’s the villain’s motive, the play here? How could that help her online business? Can you grow a cult by kidnapping and drugging people with no financial benefit? Who will break free of the medication and control of Lacey to stage a (probably quiet) rebellion?
Pitching almost the entire movie as a whisper is a disastrous decision for a seemingly simple thriller like this. The movie has no real highs or lows. Everyone is passive save for Lacey, who pegs the shrill meter a time or two in the third act.
Scene after scene frustrates, partly for failing to advance the plot, mostly for just slowly spinning its wheels and lulling the viewer to sleep.
The film’s title is either a bizarre coincidence of an unfortunate choice. An infamous state school for mentally disabled children by that name “Willowbrook” was the big break expose for a once crusading reporter named Geraldo Rivera, and has been the subject of films and books over the decades.
Very little happens at this Willowbrook, and almost nothing happens that’s interesting. And what does happen generates no response because no one raises his or her voice, there’s no rising suspense or management of anything resembling tension.
Which makes one wonder how this trifling misfire got picked up. Might young Mr. Koepp be related to the more famous Koepps of Hollywood, New York, etc? Can’t seem to easily nail that down, unlike this movie, which begs for a stake of holly and an unmarked grave.
Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Jessica Bishop, Erin Day, Lawrence J. Hughes, Chris Boudreaux, Christian Olivo, Marc Sudac, Kyle Klein and Jay White
Credits: Scripted and directed by Zach Koepp. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:13