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BUFF24: Unusual and Unexpected Strange Kindness Bleeds Empathy

Image courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival / Exile PR

Almost a hundred years ago, the archetype for the first suburban community was developed. A well-marketed staple of the American dream, a suburban home was a sign of prominence and social status. People were escaping a life of inner-city crowding and, if you ask those marketers, potential violence for a safer, cleaner living space away from the “hustle and bustle.” Now, the suburbs are just as packed as the cities. And, of course, the violence followed. Director Joseph Mault’s Strange Kindness begins in a place where that violence has trickled out, and almost mythically so, offering a subtle tale of tragedy that shakes the lives of a docile community.

The poster for Strange Kindness shows a woman's face at the center, a man with a gun in a shooting stance, and another woman standing with mushrooms and fauna beneath

Strange Kindness is Joseph Mault’s first feature film, yet he’s delicate, poised, and considerably patient behind the camera, something his handful of music video credits must’ve taught him. His first frames show us a bleeding man (Michal Vondel) carrying a heavy-duty assault rifle, and the audience is left to pass judgment. Forcing his way into the nearby home of Chris (Deirdre Madigan), he finds a reaction he wasn’t expecting. “I’m not going to scream,” Chris says, raising her arms to the gunman before offering to make him some tea. A brief back-and-forth follows.

Through two b-story siblings with unresolved issues, Rose (Leanne McLaughlin) and James (Kristofor Giodano), the audience discovers Chris is sick. These characters face an interesting past, with James’ falling into a parallel with the bleeding gunman. James’ story arc is interesting but feels incomplete. There’s an implication about James as he passes the scene of the crime on a walk that you think may boomerang back around at the end, and there’s even a flashback to strengthen this suspicion, yet it never manifests. Rose offers her nursing skills to administer chemotherapy-esque treatments to Chris a couple of times a week.

Faced with the gunman in her home, Chris appears unafraid. The proposition that death is already a certainty for whatever is ailing her frees her from much of the worry. When they first meet, there’s ripe tension between these characters. The audience has seen what the young man is capable of, and Chris is instantly relatable. Given the performances of these actors, compassion to see her survive the ordeal comes easily to the audience.

These characters are interrupted multiple times throughout Strange Kindness, often to lift the atmosphere or provide tidbits of information on the ongoing manhunt outside. Having every opportunity to give the man up, Chris resolutely does not. Haunted by a violent event from her own past, she’s interested in discovering the young man’s story. That curiosity is beguiling. With the added details of special tea and photography, the film produces an ambiance of witchcraft as their properties form potent connections that help Chris find catharsis.

Distinguished by adept camerawork and a couple of great performances, the way the story contorts itself becomes very ethereal, offering a bewildering feel-good experience by the end, the likes of which are rarely experienced. There’s a mythic connection involved between the hostage and hostage taker revealed through the story, stressing a very poignant truth about the manifestation of violence and American politics that protect weapons more than people. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia springs to mind. The interwoven story of Strange Kindness crescendos to a similar “miracle moment,” so to speak, while bringing people back together despite the shame of their shortcomings. The miracle here is an unburdening calmness, and it left me feeling a lot lighter when the movie finished. It’s a somewhat therapeutic and pensive film that plays like a safe space for the rhetorical questions asked in the wake of tragedy, begging for understanding.

Image courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival / Exile PR

At times, the film can be a little overly self-indulgent. The connective narrative tissue between the scenes often gets hijacked by Strange Kindness’ subtleties, periodically creating confusion among the audience. Visual cues from the start, such as the dreamy limbo of a bamboo forest or the memory of a beached dolphin carcass, connect heavily to the storyline and how characters intermingle. Their diaphanous cosmic states converge past and present in an artfully Lynchian way, but the leaps the film takes in that storytelling provide points of disconnection. The stylistic ambiguity works for parts of the film, but while simultaneously shocking and warm, the film’s finale will likely leave viewers feeling they’re owed a more detailed explanation.

Overall, Strange Kindness is a lovely film with striking images and rich characters, but it doesn’t offer the most straightforward narrative. Mault successfully establishes his visual efforts, but with so much symbolism to dissect within the confines of his script, there’s difficulty emphasizing their importance. I watched the film twice, fearing I may have missed a turn, but I remain unclear on some details. While I firmly believe more context would be beneficial, it’s also been meditative. The enchanting spiritual resonance that permeates the film imbues Strange Kindness with its own aura. It’s a picture meant to be felt more than understood. The viewer can draw their own conclusions at the end of the film. While the empathy bleeds off the screen, I just don’t suspect they’ll experience the same peace as the characters.

Strange Kindness held its World Premiere at the Boston Underground Film Festival on March 21. Tickets to other events are available through the Brattle Theater website. Please check the Boston Underground Film Festival website for more information on the films, parking, etc.

Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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