As we grow ever closer to the end of the world, our fantasies do their best to keep pace with us. Most often, these apocalyptic adventures look at our crumbling world through a wide lens, high up amongst heads of state and brilliant scientists, like I Am Legend and World War Z. There’s little done to show us what a world-ending event looks like on the ground. When these world-enders do focus on the little people swallowed up in chaos, we get heartbreaking narratives like The Battery, The Road, and Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein’s new movie Freaks.
The apocalypse in Freaks is unique, however. It’s not meteors and zombies. The cataclysmic destructions are caused by powerful psychics called Abnormals, or, as expected in less politically correct circles, Freaks. We enter this new world, not with news cameras and C-SPAN, but with a father and daughter, hiding out in a suburban house. As they prepare a canned food breakfast in the light of their taped-over windows, the father known only as Dad (played by Emile Hirsch) quizzes his young daughter Chloe (played by Lexy Kolker) about herself.
It’s a strange scene until we realize that Dad is ensuring Chloe knows her cover story by rote, just in case something ever happened to him and she needs to flee and try to live with the neighbors. To be a Freak, in this world, is to be hunted, and that means Chloe will never know a life where she’s not prepared for the worst. As Chloe struggles with her captivity and growing awareness of it, her Dad deals with the terror that one day, his daughter might decide her chances of survival are better elsewhere. Like all the major life decisions of little girls, Chloe’s rebellion begins with ice cream.
Ice cream, in this case, comes from a suspicious old man outside she knows only as Mr. Snowcone (played by the inimitable genre legend Bruce Dern). This rebellion gets the largest gears of Freaks’ plot mechanics turning. What begins as an intimate story of near-constant twists and uncertainties (What’s extents of Chloe’s abilities? What is the extent of the damage done by Freaks?), spins into a sparking, edge-of-the-seat thriller in its second half.
The actors, particularly Hirsch, Dern, and Kolker, do an incredible job of texturing a world we don’t understand. This is not a world militarized super-powered-people hunters of the X-Men or Equilibrium. This world feels like ours, with a few changes. Freaks are found out by a trickle of blood from the eye, an affliction that flares up whenever they use their powers. What holds Freaks together, though, is a continually shifting atmosphere. The viewer can never truly place themselves for the film’s first half, as we learn information, then more information that throws what we’ve already learned into doubt.
Lipovsky and Stein, as the film’s writers and directors, employ every power available to meld our minds with Chloe’s. We learn as she does who to trust, who to fear, and what to fight for. Like the Freaks, the filmmakers use the hypnosis and trickery of editing, mystery, and selective exposition to manipulate time, space, and perception. Our sympathies fly across the plot like books in Matilda’s library, shelving themselves in Dad, Mr. Snowcone, the police, and back again.
There’s so much we don’t know in the first half that it can almost be disorienting, but, again, any little girl hunted by the government would be disoriented. When Dad refuses to get Chloe ice cream after promising he would, we feel her disappointment. We question Dad’s authority, we’ve never been outside. Maybe it’s not so bad. There’s ice cream out there! When Mr. Snowcone finally offers Chloe her long-sought cone with sprinkles, her joy is palpable, staggeringly palpable for an actress as young as Kolker. But, when Mr. Snowcone begins to act suspiciously, the camera, sound design, and score all prod and pulse against our temples with new nagging questions. Is anyone safe in this world?
In the film’s latter half, the plot lands its numerous scrambled story-planes, then opens fire with all the special effects and Freak powers we never thought we’d never see. It’s our reward, a bloody, glorious finish line after a race paved with potholes. We keep the faith, and get to hear a frantic Emile Hirsch scream “You’d better get away from my house before I melt all your BRAINS WITH MY FREAK POWERS! (emphasis mine)” Like House of the Devil and We Are Still Here, Freaks is tactfully, strategically restrained, until it isn’t. Then it goes fucking nuts.
I do not prize or exalt a film for having a plot I’m unable to guess, at least, not automatically. Plots can be difficult to guess because they are confusing, or poorly formed. Freaks is a true guessing game in that, despite never knowing myself, I never felt like the story didn’t know. In a cinematic landscape choc-full of bombastic special effects shows with more CGI than substance, it’s refreshing to see a subtle, grounded superpower movie again, something akin to Mark L. Lester’s Firestarter or Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore’s Special.
The unfolding thriller is a difficult task for the most competent filmmakers, and it’s a testament to Hirsch, Dern, Kolker, and the filmmakers that they’ve succeeded at making one involving kids with world-ending powers that can and did reduce Dallas, Texas to ashes.
A Perfect Double Feature With David Cronenberg’s own telekinetic thriller Scanners in which heads explode and people catch fire while a dangerous plot unfolds around them.