Toby Jones has pretty good taste. Alongside high-profile bullet-points like Harry Potter, Captain America, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on his filmography, lurk a handful of spectacularly weird indies. Best-known to BMD readers will undoubtedly be Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, a reality-melting Italian-style horror freakout that made serious waves in genre circles. Jones’ newest project, Kaleidoscope, carries more than a hint of that weirdness - not least of which because of who directed it.
Kaleidoscope is the feature directorial debut of one Rupert Jones - Toby’s brother - and it’s about as tailor-made for the beloved character actor as any film could be. Jones plays Carl, an ex-con and aspiring gardener living quietly in a sad English flat with a broken washing machine and bizarrely spiralling staircases. An opening flash-forward sets up intriguing clues as to the dark happenings that will unfold in that tiny flat - a broken chair, cigarette butts, a corpse - but barely even hints at how weird that unfolding will be.
The plot of Kaleidoscope is less a straightforward narrative than a series of vignettes creating a profound feeling of unease. It all centres on Carl’s relationships with women - specifically, his mother (a wonderfully stern Anne Reid), who first appears in the form of repeated answering-machine messages before slowly taking over the whole movie. That relationship is reflected, uneasily, in Carl's other major story thread: a disastrous internet date with the chavvy Abby (Sinead Matthews, also excellent), whose intentions with Carl are not entirely above-board. According to Abby, men “either go for their mothers, or the opposite,” but in Carl’s case, she doesn’t know quite how right she is. Everyone in this movie has secrets, either current or long-buried, and their emergence into the light provides Kaleidoscope with much of its torments.
Were it not for its fractured, time-hopping narrative, Kaleidoscope would have the air of a stagebound thriller. Taking place almost entirely in a single flat, with only a handful of characters, it feels like a play that exists only in dreams. That continues through to its meticulous attention to detail in its mise-en-scene. Subtle clues and markers are deployed throughout the film - a sawblade, a photograph, some loose wall plaster, a series of tiny wounds - suggesting that it rewards obsessive repeat viewings. Those countless clues, pored over by Jones’ camera, echo the multitude of stressors hanging over Carl’s head, and will surely cause migraines in anyone trying to keep them all in mind on first viewing.
I’m not going to pretend I understand everything that happens in Kaleidoscope. Constantly swerving through time and between points of view, it’s incredibly confusing film when interpreted conventionally. But like Berberian Sound Studio, David Lynch’s oeuvre, and the apartment thrillers of Roman Polanski, it makes emotional sense, following a sort of dream logic and dragging you under with it - if you let it. Full of uncomfortable character turns, the film dives headfirst into parental and Oedipal trauma, the lines between its female characters blurring in gut-wrenching ways. As it goes deeper down the rabbit hole, the musical score hypnotising as much as it discomforts, it becomes hard to look away.
Jones is typically excellent here, selling Carl’s disintegrating psyche without a hint of theatrics. The whole film is built around and reflects his character: quiet, obsessive, and troubled. Each new character introduced tightens the noose just a little bit, and there’s more than a little “out damn spot” to Carl's increasingly frantic attempts to free himself from his cyclic nightmare. The camera makes great use of Jones’ odd little face, often cloaking it in harsh shadows or splitting it into facets via the titular kaleidoscope. Jones’ character here is a fine companion piece to Berberian’s Gilderoy - a man beset by anxieties banal and primal, unable to escape from his tiny world.
By the time its ending rolls around, Kaleidoscope has put its audience through a bona fide paranoid nightmare. Thanks to a devolving sense of reality and fluid character identities, the final twist's meaning remains frustratingly obtuse, but in the end, it doesn't matter. Kaleidoscope is a psychotronic head-trip of a movie - a bad dream that will make you feel bad. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s definitely your movie.