On one of the buzziest nights at the recent 66th Melbourne International Film Festival, writer/director Luke Shanahan’s psychological thriller/horror Rabbit had its world premiere.
Audiences were especially curious because Rabbit was the winning pitch at the festival’s 37º South Market a couple of years before. The prize included a paid trip to the London Production Finance Market, and subsequent hopes that it would attract financing and talent.
That the film actually got made so soon was impressive enough, but when Clemens, an Aussie actress who had appeared alongside Leonardo DeCaprio in The Great Gatsby, was secured for the main role, it seemed another good omen.
The audience certainly lapped it up – all the promo posters were stolen from The Forum theatre where the screening was held for a start – but did it live up to the hype?
Rabbit certainly starts arrestingly and recognizably, with Cleo running headlong through the woods as she’s chased by a masked man. She finds a cabin, and seemingly saviors – but that’s not the case.
Elsewhere, we meet Maude (Clemens), who is leaving her medical dissection class feeling a little faint; it’s an early sign of things to come.
For a long time Maude has been tortured by horrific dreams – dreams that show her twin Cleo (also Clemens) in an isolated cabin and seemingly being tortured.
Cleo went missing a year ago, but everyone has given her up for dead – except for Maude, who decides to visit her shattered parents and then recruit Cleo’s former fiancée Ralph (Russell) and Henry (Pasvolsky), the obsessed cop who never gave up on the case, to try to find this cabin.
There are immediately sinister shades of 70s shockers like Deliverance, the recent Get Out and even a touch of Hammer Horror when they come across a bizarre camping ground that’s full of weirdos – and, it seems, several other pairs of twins.
The mystery deepens of course; Maude suffering more and more intense dreams, and events spinning out of control around her – including Henry running off into the dark after an unknown person, and Ralph seeming to disappear too.
Then the screen literally goes red for a few seconds.
Maude wakes to finds herself in a clean and airy country house, where silent young girls in aprons seem to keep everything just so – but then there are Nerida and Keith (Baetens and Mayer), husband and wife doctors who are conducting an unusual experiment on their “guests.”
Maude seems to give in to her fate, reluctantly agreeing to their demands – which seem harmless at first – as she is still convinced that Cleo is alive, and Nerida promises her they can be reunited if she plays nice.
The story now in fact becomes more about Nerida and her mixed feelings over the fact that her long-time experiment might have finally found patient zero (as it were) – but that means something deadly has to happen to prove her hypothesis is correct.
As you have probably gathered, we’re in the disturbing world of eugenics and human experiments here, and director of photography Anna Howard does an excellent job of making both vast landscapes and cramped woods seem equally oppressive and dangerous, while Shanahan’s direction is smooth for the genre (at least until his writing begins to wander).
Composer Michael Darren’s music is blaring bombastic though, forcing the emotions and feelings onto you when they’re already there – something that’s a real pity, as it only emphasizes how the narrative begins to fishtail and go off the path in that second half, with Maude seemingly giving up on escaping or finding her sister.
It’s something that allows Belgian-born actress Baetens to nearly steal the film away. Looking uncannily like Holly Hunter, she’s a sexy but cold psychopath who would confuse anyone. More so than the potential offered by Shanahan and the ravaged Clemens, she’s really worth looking out for in the future
So is Cleo still out there, still held captive by the hooded man that Maude is so sure she can see – and maybe even influence – or is that supernatural connection going to condemn both the sisters, rather than reunite them? And will the creepy sibling story behind the “rabbit” title come into play too?