Moving to a big city can be very intimidating, especially if you’re doing it entirely on your own and don’t know anyone there. Depending on where you’re coming from, it can feel almost like a foreign country, one where you’re a stranger in a strange land and entirely out of your element. There’s a quiet sense of horror in this idea, and writer/director David Marmor taps into this unease with brilliant results in his debut feature length film 1BR.
1BR is the story of Sarah, a young woman who has moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a costume designer. At the moment though she’s stuck in a temp job she hates and is living out of a hotel with her beloved cat Giles. Soon though, Sarah finds an amazing apartment at an amazing price with amazing neighbors in an amazing part of the city. In short, something that is too good to be true – and it’s not long before we find how not good this deal is and how untrue the façade of the perfect apartment is. Shortly after moving in Sarah begins being subjected to strange noises all through the night, people spying on her, and much more horrific things as her dream of living in the big city spirals out of control into a full blown nightmare involving a utopian cult that won’t take no for an answer.
It is this aspect of the culture of L.A, essentially a thinly veiled analog for Scientology, that takes the sinister center stage. The concept undergirding a story like this is a familiar one – the film industry being this monolithic evil chewing up and spitting out hapless young adults – and it is 1BR‘s focus that takes a long hard look at an aspect of the city life that few movies have bothered with before. If Mulholland Drive was David Lynch’s love letter to Los Angeles, 1BR is David Marmor’s version of the distress signal from Alien warning everyone to stay away. Whereas Lynch chose to focus on faceless film execs and a heartless industrial machine as the cause of distress in his L.A. story, Marmor instead places the blame squarely on the various cults that operate in the city that prey on the weak, the lonely, and the displaced. That being said, it feels as if Marmor’s vision of a curdled utopia owes much to the work of David Lynch. The strange industrial pipe noises Sarah is plagued with throughout the night feel like something directly out of Eraserhead, and the every scene full of smiling neighbors and friendly community gathering has that eerie Lynchian sheen to it where you just know these people are up to no good and have nothing but ill will for our protagonist.
Now, that is not to say this just another Lynch wank piece; Marmor has a style that is entirely his own when it comes to filmmaking. This film is tighter and far more linear than anything Lynch would ever make, and the tightness of the shots and restricted setting are more Polanski than Lynch. But the influences are undeniably there, and Marmor deftly uses them to weave a tale that shows the true inner workings of a utopia cult. There is no smiling representative offering a better world if you just join them, someone reciting vague saccharine platitudes and promises of salvation and understanding. Instead, Marmor guts the inner workings of such cults and shoves our faces in what spills out: vicious gas-lighting techniques, brutal physical and mental abuse, military style interrogation tactics, and cruel exercises in isolating one from ones family. There is no sugarcoating cults as well meaning hippies; Marmor’s vision of such organizations make the Manson family look like amateurs.
That idea of familial connection gone horribly wrong is one Marmor takes to the extreme and uses as the vehicle to detail the horror of cults. There’s the saying that friends are the family you choose; the subtext to that being that sometimes our friends in the end mean more to us than our family does. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Sometimes, our families can be populated by terrible people that are best avoided and exorcised from our lives. Indeed, we learn early on that Sarah doesn’t have the best relationship with her family, particularly her father. But Marmor turns that concept on its head by showing that this idea can be just as dangerous as the toxic “blood is thicker than water” concept when used by the wrong people. Sarah is in desperate need of some sense of belonging and this leaves her wide open to a threat dressed as the one thing she desires most.
Even though the film is largely confined to one setting (Sarah’s Los Angeles apartment complex) it nonetheless feels as if we’re seeing something play out in the depths of some massive building, the belly of the beast so to speak. That setting lends an additional note of horror to the story: this is not Evil Dead or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre where our luckless protagonists are stranded in some desolate location. Salvation is literally just outside the door. But the degree to which the characters are so hopelessly entrenched with the cult mentality makes such a short distance something that might as well be a thousand miles away, and that makes the situation all the more heartbreaking. Sure, the door is locked electronically, but it wouldn’t take much to simply open it and walk out if someone really wanted to. Despite the horror they witness and are party to, despite the undeniable cruelty that flourishes in the complex, the tenants there are so dedicated, certain, and in the end broken and refashioned to obey the whims of their leader that leaving isn’t just an option they don’t take, it’s something they truly do not want to do. This idea of normal every day people being willing accomplices in something truly horrific and continuing to stay in the environment that gives rise to such horrors is a simple yet monstrous concept.
The performances in this film are nothing less than spectacular across the board. Nicole Brydon Bloom is fantastic as our protagonist Sarah, shouldering the weight of the movie and bringing a sense of “this could be anyone I know” to it. Her quiet naiveté makes the events she is subjected to in the film all the more repulsive, and her reactions to what is done to her and what she witnesses are unsettlingly genuine. Even when she apparently goes full dark side on us, she still has these wonderful micro-expressions that hint at some inner conflict she is still feeling despite the apparent success of the programming. There is a scene where she’s forced to break someone’s heart that is incredible to watch because of how quickly she goes back and forth between heartbroken and disdainful. Giles Matthey and Taylor Nichols are both phenomenal as the faces the cult who’s taken Sarah in, the leader and their right hand man. The fluidity of their intentions and personalities is frightening, in that they go from paternal and tender to abusive and threatening at the drop of a hat. It’s classic abuser behavior – the threat of/actual use of violence followed by the friendly and affectionate aftercare laced with declarations how they only do what they do because they love you – but to see it play out onscreen so effectively is shocking. And the always amazing Naomi Grossman is stunning in this film, playing the maternal surrogate mother to the cult who slips into an abusive tyrant as simply as changing a shirt.
1BR starts out a bit slow, and Marmor certainly favors a slow burn approach through much of it, but it’s quite effective in guiding us towards the terrifying remaining two thirds of the movie. Once things get going, the movie is relentlessly brutal and doesn’t stop until the ending. Despite the quiet and restrained opening, by the end you will likely be simultaneously pumping your fist in exuberance and wailing in despair. It’s an absolute rollercoaster ride; gut wrenching and heartbreaking yet a ton of fun.