As I sat watching Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus,” I kept thinking back to Brotman’s Law of Film, which states that if nothing happens by the end of the first reel, nothing is going to happen. That bit of wisdom, coined by Chicago movie exhibitor Oscar Brotman as a barometer to tell you when you’re in for a bomb of a flick, was first introduced to me through the writings of the late Roger Ebert many years ago. Unfortunately, Ebert never told me what to expect when nothing happens by the end of the final reel. Here we have what is essentially a film built on an interesting set-up, but little else. It spends the first five minutes on promises of things to come, and the remaining ninety-five bludgeoning those promises to death by doing nothing, before ending without a clear reason for ever having been there in the first place. This is one frustrating movie.
To tell you about the movie feels like an exercise in futility, so bear with me: Karen Gillan plays Kaylie Russell, an antiques dealer who comes across a mysterious mirror during an estate auction. It quickly becomes apparent that Kaylie has a history with the mirror (called the Lasser Glass), and arranges to have it moved to a temporary storage location in preparation for transit to its new owner. That location just happens to be the house that Kaylie and her brother Tim once lived in.
Now don’t lose me, here. That house, in all its big, sprawling, suburban Crate & Barrel goodness, has been sitting on the market with nary a speck of dust on its gleaming hardwood floors and not so much as a single buyer for eleven years—ever since Tim was carted off to a mental institution for shooting to death his and Kaylie’s father, who had allegedly just murdered their mother. It’s fortuitous that the Lasser Glass comes into Kaylie’s possession on exactly the same day her brother is released from the hospital, and shortly after the house was legally returned to her. Convinced their father’s actions were the result of supernatural forces manifested by the mirror, Kaylie sets up a series of cameras in the house, barricades herself and her brother in it with enough protein bars and water to last three small lifetimes, and waits for something to happen. And waits, and waits, and waits.
I said that the set-up to “Oculus” is interesting, and so it is. The early scenes of Kaylie and Tim alone in the house crackle with tension, as it becomes clear that Kaylie’s desire to prove her father’s innocence borders on obsessive. Tim has no clear memory of what really happened, and we suspect Kaylie doesn’t either, although she blames Tim’s poor recollection that their dad was simply sick on the hospital’s “brainwashing.” To sort things out, the screenplay employs a non-linear storyline that repeatedly flashes back eleven years earlier, so that we can see what I presume to be the unfettered view of how things really happened.
And then everything just stalls. Kaylie engages in a protracted scene of gratuitous exposition, rattling off facts and figures about the Lasser Glass from memory with shocking rapidity, before Tim challenges her perception of their past with an equally gratuitous script-fed knowledge of psychoanalysis. Both characters then attempt to one-up each other with even more uncanny know-how of cameras, computers, and basic engineering. These are two of the most brilliant minds on the planet, according to the dialogue, which comes across as stilted, unconvincing, and wholly out of step with its characters.
The two begin to see things and question their sanity. Something goes bump in the night every now and then. A creepy lady with white eyes appears suddenly around corners. The glass can’t be smashed. I swear to you on my life none of this is very exciting. Are the flashbacks truly the factual accounting of what happened that night eleven years before? The movie doesn’t say. Was the siblings’ father the victim of supernatural tampering? Or was there something more insidious at play? The movie doesn’t say. Is Kaylie right? Is Tim right? The movie, again, doesn’t say. The movie doesn’t tell us anything except that it’s a movie. I have no issues with ambiguity—not every movie has to spoon-feed its audience. But I do have an issue with a movie that works so hard to be not only ambiguous, but downright confounding, without a modicum of help to understand it.
After more than ninety minutes of circling the airport, “Oculus” comes in for a landing that feels phony and tacked on. As I sat back, annoyed and confused at the waste of time, my husband turned to me and said, quite plainly, “That movie was a piece of shit.” I don’t know if I’d go that far—Brenton Thwaites is convincing as Tim, and Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane do nice work as the parents—but a few more missteps, and I might have been in agreement.