SXSW Review: THE WAITING

James Caan anchors this deeply sad subversion of found footage horror tropes.

The Waiting is a difficult film to review, mostly because the viewer should really go in as blind as humanly possible (as this reviewer did, knowing next to nothing about the picture) and allow its copious reveals to work them over like a fighter on a fresh heavy bag. Ostensibly a “horror movie” that combines traditional narrative filmmaking, “found footage”, courtroom drama and a third act reveal that completely pulls the emotional rug out from under the audience, director Kasra Farahani juggles the twisty elements of Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard’s script effortlessly. Much like last year’s SXSW buzz movie, The Invitation, The Waiting utilizes genre constructs in an effort to explore heavy themes regarding loss, mourning and the ways in which our past continues to haunt us into our present. This is an adult meditation hiding inside of a teen terror costume, and the end result is both bleak and deeply affecting.

It all begins with a prank, as Ethan (Logan Miller) and Sean (Keir Gilchrist) decide to set up an elaborate surveillance system inside the home of Harold Grainey (James Caan), the crotchety neighborhood shut-in who (legend has it) beat his wife to the point that she finally abandoned him several years earlier. The boys’ motivation is rooted in both science and spite – basing their “experiment” (as they shrewdly refer to it several times) on an existing study where subjects were chosen at random by observers who would then meddle with their existence in minor ways. These planned annoyances were used to track aberrations in everyday behavior; shifts in habit that eventually led to major life changes (one unwilling participant claimed to even believe in God due to this unbeknownst human interference). However, our two suburban genii have decided to step the game up and try to convince Mr. Grainey that his house is truly haunted, recording his reaction to each manufactured scare. The boys admit that it’s a cruel joke. But really who cares if they harass this old alcoholic abuser? He deserves what he gets.

At first, it seems as if Farahani’s film is just another entry into the (SUPER) tired “found footage” subsection of horror that has grown in popularity (yet stayed fairly stagnant in execution) since The Blair Witch Project. We’re watching the finished product of these tormentors’ grand design as they smarmily address the camera and even segment their own film within a film via cue cards labeled with the names of each designed disturbance. Yet Farahani begins to break from the format ever so slightly, inserting off-kilter dramatic set ups that clash with the reconnaissance cameras and handheld DV footage. What initially seems like disorienting moments of ineptitude reveal themselves to be a united creeping set up for a complete formal break.

Without warning, The Waiting jumps several months into the future as the boys stand trial for crimes committed during their time distressing the old drunk. The stern prosecutor (Tamlyn Tomita) refers again and again to “the tragedy” that resulted thanks to the kids’ ill-advised plot, and bloody crime scene photos hint at an act of heinous violence. It becomes clear what Farahani is doing – he’s made us members of the jury, judging these two over privileged (and under monitored) shits as we anxiously await just what the hell happened to James Caan’s grumbly geezer. It’s an ingenious combination of structural wrinkles that creates a superb sense of suspense and instantly invests us in the lives this covert investigation obviously shattered. From this point on, The Waiting stops being somewhat generic and becomes absolutely fascinating; a case study about a case study, overhauling the accouterments of a much maligned approach to horror filmmaking.

Seeing as we’re mostly trapped in a middle class home with Sean and Ethan, it’s absolutely imperative that both Keir Gilchrist (who most will know from last year’s masterwork, It Follows) and Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse) keep both our interest and sympathies. Honestly, the latter is where The Waiting may be a bit of a test for certain viewers. These two kids are not good people; in fact, they’re downright despicable. Though Bianculli and Richard’s screenplay deftly attaches individual motivations for the boys to want to pull this hoax off (Sean is MIT bound while Ethan’s impetus is much more sinisterly personal), it never lets us forget that they’re also playing God where they most certainly should not. The Waiting is Rear Window for the surveillance age, taking the voyeuristic concept of Hitchcock’s classic and updating it for a generation that is not only acclimated to being constantly watched, but is also somewhat OK with the hazy ethics that have been passed down by NSA monitoring and drone strikes. There’s a sense of “greater good” the boys hide behind that becomes chilling, especially once the grim final reel rolls.

Layered on top of this hazy moral core is a third act that contains enough force to completely knock the wind out a viewer. For much of the movie’s running time, Caan is asked to shuffle, grunt and act like a clichéd character from countless scare pictures – the mythical “mean old man down the block” who’s probably hiding something awful in his basement. It isn’t until after we learn the experiment’s gruesome end that Farahani pulls back the curtain and reveals that everything we thought we knew about Harold Grainey isn’t actually true. In reality, the spooks Ethan and Sean created have actually acted as a sort of Proustian trigger, sending the old man back into the painful memories that have kept him locked inside his home for over a decade. The title The Waiting now takes on a quite literal meaning, as Mr. Grainey has apparently been trying to clockwatch the worst trauma he’s ever had to endure, and these two monsters have awakened a hurt he’d been keeping at bay via gallons of brown liquid. Where one individual in the previous experiment found God, Mr. Grainey only discovers demons he knew weren’t dead, but hoped were done with him. This is weighty adult angst hidden beneath a found footage veneer; a deep well of sadness in the place of bullshit jump scares. In short, The Waiting is a brilliant rebellion against a cinematic mode that had mostly proven itself to be completely played out, and Caan is the deceptive center of its diseased universe.

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