Portraying the various nuances of mental health in art is not an easy task. The film landscape is littered with attempts to depict depression, anxiety, hallucinations, and other mental health issues with sincerity that end up feeling exploitative or naïve. It is difficult to explore these experiences in a way that is humanizing, that doesn’t treat them as plot devices, that avoid dehumanizing the characters and the audience members who may have these experiences. Even more, many depictions may fall too squarely into an obvious category and thus miss some of the interesting nuance that lends itself to excellent art. Horror films have long addressed questions of mental health both directly and indirectly. Often, when directly present, these presentations are the worst case scenarios of exploitation. However, addressing these issues indirectly can be just as complicated. Inevitably metaphor or analogy will not reach the level of truth one could with direct documentary, but sometimes can reflect an inner truth of the experience that resonates for the audience. I suspect this method, of indirect representation, coming at the issue “sideways” allows horror as well as other genre cinema, to take on all manner of difficult subjects in a way that is perhaps just as if not more satisfying for some audiences. When I Consume You is only the third film by writer/director/producer Perry Blackshear, but many who saw his first feature length film, They Look Like People have praised his ability to tell a story that comes at mental health in this sideways manner and yet firmly says something true and compelling. This new film maintains some of the anxiety and claustrophobia of that first feature while making some bold dramatic decisions that are entirely different, creating a unique vision in modern horror. It may or may not be more effective at speaking to issues of alienation, addiction, or anxiety but it is a more successful film that manages to surprise and terrorize its audience in unique ways.
When I Consume You makes the kind of unexpected decisions within the first 15 minutes that are so interesting and unexpected that I was not at all surprised the official synopsis of the film is almost dishonest in its description of the plot. However, since the promotional materials I have seen for the film have not given away some of those decisions, I will try and keep them to myself as well. Suffice to say, Wilson and Daphne are brother and sister, and they grew up rough. Now, as adults, they still struggle with addiction and mental health issues. Daphne has gotten more of her life in order than Wilson, and is trying to adopt and start a family. When a stalker is revealed, they team up to find and eliminate the threat, BUT THERE ARE MANY SURPRISES ALONG THE WAY. I think, though it is a very slight spoiler, I have to say there are some supernatural elements of movie. This was true of his first feature, but also not? The nature of the film was to be ambiguous, unsettled, and though to me as a viewer I felt there was a clear answer, I think some folks may not feel as certain they know the “truth” of the narrative. When I Consume You has many of the same analogous or metaphorical elements of that first feature, but is much clearer that there is something supernatural at play. Those forces may or may not represent a mental health reality, but they are still what they are within the narrative. This change was, for me, exciting and engaging and really helped me fall into the world of this movie.
It isn’t fair to reduce a review of When I Consume You to either an analysis of the ways it addresses its more difficult subject matter, or to a comparison to Blackshear’s other films, despite the impact his first feature had not only on me but many of my friends in the horror community. This new film is in fact quite an achievement in its own right. Similar to his first film, this takes places entirely in Brooklyn, in a city that is somehow both large and claustrophobic on screen. There are definitely people around, but the camera manages to create this feeling of closeness, like our protagonists are the only people in the world. This production was small, and Blackshear was also the cinematographer, and he does an excellent job. There are a few moments of shakey cam in the film which thematically make sense, but this viewer found disorienting in a difficult way. Otherwise, the camera work here is awesome. The cast will be familiar to those who saw Blackshear’s first feature, especially Evan Dumouchel as Wilson Shaw. However, newcomer to ensemble, Libby Ewing as Daphne Shaw, is for me the highlight of the movie. She is funny and sincere, she adds a sense of reality to some of the more unbelievable moments of the film. She is endearing but also a bit mysterious. That is not to say Dumouchel is not excellent, but his character is more brooding and less engaging, a choice that is narratively necessary for the film as his turn is one of the important cathartic moments of the movie. It is Ewing though who really sells the film, bringing a joy and a depth that this character needs. These actors, with this script, really sell the film. The film has an interesting pace, taking a slower pace at first after some deeply dramatic events and then ramping up in the third act. I found this very satisfying as the slowed down moments allowed for some compelling character moments, but I recognize that some will find it jarring.
Perry Blackshear has made three features, though I have only seen two. The similarities between that first feature and this film might lead some to consider Blackshear a one note director, but I think that is unfair. These films both use horror to speak to issues that are incredibly personal, but the method and even the message seem entirely different to me. This new film is incredibly hopeful, perhaps excessively so for some. To me, it is an example of authentic hope, looking quite clear eyed at suffering and yet finding some sense of resilience in that exploration. I must admit, when the film started some of the ways it was exploring these ideas felt a bit too on the nose. There is a mid film reveal though that changed my entire view of how the movie was working, and really made me fall in love with it. There is more humor here, maybe even some whimsy, but most of all there is a film that manages to be truly upsetting at moments while still having some humanity within it. It is, despite making some tough decisions, a compassionate rather than cruel movie. Despite the interesting pacing, this movie MOVES, it has a dynamic tension that held me the entire time. It is obviously a low budget film, but it uses that to its advantage to create a very claustrophobic feeling. These characters are in the world, but THEIR world is incredibly small. Ideologically, this might be a problem for some. Focusing excessively on individuals in a struggle might seem like a criticism of community resources. Many who suffer with illness feel alone, and in many ways they are not. However, the pandemic also reminded many of us that while we are never entirely alone, feeling that way is not irrational. Sometimes all the friends and family and community resources in the world are not enough to fight the isolation. Giving people a vision that is perhaps more isolated, but still contains a kernel of human thriving and flourishing is an act of compassion I can truly get behind. Yes, this film has suffering and grit and violence and despair in it, but I think it is at its core about resilience.