SLIFF 2009 Review: UNDER STILL WATERS
There is slow burn, and then there is no burn, that type of film that keeps making you think something, anything, is about to happen. Sometimes, if it is done poorly, a no burn film will tease you so hard that a big plot turn is coming just around the corner that it becomes obvious that no twist is coming. Fortunately, Carolyn Miller’s thriller UNDER STILL WATERS does offer that elusive twist. Sometime does occur in the film to make all the tantalizing and smoke generating seemingly worth while. However, it takes some time to get to that point, and, by the time it does, the film has fallen so far into no burn territory that it’s hard to recover.
Lake Bell and Jason Clarke play Charlie and Andrew, respectively, a young couple who are trying to work through their issues. Charlie’s father is a very powerful and very rich man, and Andrew just wants to be able to support his wife away and clear from her father. The two decide to spend some time out in the woods at her father’s lake house.
On the way, they come across (read nearly hit) Jacob, played by Clifton Collins Jr., a drifter whose bike has run out of gas along the road. The couple decides to take Jacob to the lake house, but, from the start, his presence seems out of the ordinary. Things turn even darker once Andrew realizes Jacob is carrying a gun. Who is Jacob? Why does Charlie seem so infatuated with him? What dark secrets do the couple have that might come into play? These are the answers Miller takes forever and a day to reveal.
There really is much to like about UNDER STILL WATERS. Cinematographer Matthew Irving, who has previously worked on WAITRESS and WAITING… (oddly, two completely, different types of film), effortlessly shoots around the Missouri countryside. Tom Hiel’s score is effective yet never overpowering of the film. Miller herself knows well how to capture a shot, and, for the most part, UNDER STILL WATERS has the look and feel of a large-budget production.
Even though most of the film feels like a display of style over substance, and the inner workings of the film aren’t allowed to come into play until well into it, they eventually do just that. In fact, much of the first 2/3 of the film feels drawn out, slightly lagging, and full of seemingly pointless flashbacks. At first, they feel disconnected, unnecessary, as if they were only thrown into pad the run time. Fortunately, Miller has an endgame here, and, as everything becomes revealed in the film’s final act, you understand why the rest of the film plays out as it does. The risk here is in losing the audience before they get to the hook. Miller’s film runs that line very closely, and anyone who may feel a bit distracted may not care how the outcome plays out.
One element that helps to keep the audience’s attention through the low parts are the exemplary performances by all three leads. All three have to run the gamut of emotions, and all three have to, each, draw something different from the crowd at any given moment. You never know completely until the end who to root for or against, and much of the success of this falls at the feet of Bell, Clarke, and Collins Jr. There is no denying Collins Jr. does the best job here at playing the audience, though. His expressions are enough persuade you into liking him or thinking he is no good, and that is before he even opens his mouth to deliver a line of dialog.
By the time UNDER STILL WATERS delivers what, eventually, sets it in the thriller genre, the onslaught of revelations, twists, and even a little violence is a welcome relief to all the growing tension. That no burn feeling does finally give way to something, and you realize the slow burn has been there all along. Though not a very tightly wound one, the film, at its heart, is a thriller, and, though it finally succeeds in making waves, the waters here are still for far too long.
UNDER STILL WATERS will screen at the Tivoli on Friday, November 13th at 9:30pm during the 18th Annual Whitaker Saint Louis International Film Festival.