In the face of tragedy, there is a tendency for people to search for meaning. An answer to ‘why did this happen to me?’ People have a difficult time accepting that sometimes bad things just happen. Perry Blackshear’s latest effort When I Consume You is exquisitely brutal yet utterly beautiful examination of this phenomenon.
When I Consume You is the story of Daphne and Wilson Shaw, a sister and brother living in New York City. Three things are quickly made apparent in this film: Daphne and Wil are extremely close (something made perfectly clear by the absolute gorgeous chemistry between actors Libby Ewing and Evan Dumouchel), but they’re having a rough go of things. Daphne, despite being five years sober, is still struggling to shake the stigma of addiction, and Wil is having a difficult time advancing his career beyond that of a janitor. The third thing that we soon learn is that their childhood was far from ideal. Hints of abuse and worse are dropped here and there, and the two find themselves ensnared in a struggle with something sinister and supernatural that, unbeknownst to Wil, has been stalking the two of them since childhood, something that may (or may not) be behind a recent tragedy in their lives. It is this struggle to understand the cause of that tragedy that forms the narrative of the film.
Blackshear is adept at making films that are somehow horrifyingly grim while being almost unbearably tender. Even when dealing with themes of loss and grief and mental illness, there’s always something almost hopeful about his films. In this case, it’s the bond between the Shaw siblings. Despite the myriad problems of their lives, the love and admiration the two have for each other is achingly endearing. Wil speaks of his sister being the strongest person he knows, and there’s a moment in the film when a social worker interviewing Daphne for an adoption application mentions the only family she has is her brother Wil, and Daphne replies with “Yeah he’s the best. You can write down that I said that.” It’s such a simple but powerful moment in the film, one that Ewing gives a tremendous amount of weight to with absolute ease. It’s this theme of “us against the world” between the two that really makes this film wonderful to watch unfold.
The flipside to that is, of course, the horror of the film. And there is plenty of it. Similarly to Blackshear’s feature debut They Look Like People (which we did an episode of Horror Business on) When I Consume You takes a more restrained route to making the viewer uncomfortable. There is the occasional bit of outright horrifying imagery, but often Blackshear utilizes a quiet brand of grotesque to get under our skin. A rough whisper for a voice. A slightly unsteady wobbling gait for a walk. People on the street with hidden features clearly up to no good. Even the way Blackshear shoots New York City seems sinister, like a more washed-up Gotham City, or Larry Cohen’s New York City in modern times. Nothing straight up scary but more just gently unsettling. The kind of imagery that hits a chord inside of you in a way you can’t quite explain but you know it’s frightening.
There’s a lot of existential horror in this film as well (in one scene Dumouchel suffers one of the most realistic depictions of a panic attack I’ve ever seen committed to film) and it all mixes together to create a very effective atmosphere of dread. The whole film just feels laden with melancholy and fear, and while it’s unpleasant it makes for an extremely immersive film that is very satisfying as a cinematic experience.
The characters in this film are brought to life by an exceedingly talented team of actors. Blackshear’s own personal dynamic duo of Evan Dumouchel and MacLeod Andrews are fantastic as usual. Dumouchel gives life to the character of Wil Shaw as a man who is utterly adrift, unable to function in a world that feels completely hostile. Wil doesn’t come off as childish so much as child-like, innocent in a tragic way. The viewer gets the feeling that Wil is capable of great things if he could just catch a break, or even a moment to catch his breath. Dumouchel imbues Wil with a very muted but clear sense of integrity; in layman’s terms, Wil is your archetypical Good Dude. Unfortunately, he is a good man existing in a world that is at best entirely apathetic to his pain and at worst gleefully doing its best to encourage such pain. Dumouchel’s performance is not glamourous, or stylish, or pretty. It is exactly the way someone in the real world would look and act in such a situation. It is ugly and unlovely and awkward to behold but at the same time it is an absolute treasure to witness. Andrews is a blast to watch as a sleazy street monster, a slinking predator of a person looking disdainfully out at the world through Wayfarers in the middle of the night, an unkempt Cheshire cat creature doing god knows what on the backstreets of New York City. He alternates between concerned friend to salivating carnivore, from a cackling trickster to a deadly serious monstrosity. He almost effortlessly creates a character that isn’t human but can barely pass as one and it is very creepy. Libby Ewing, despite portraying the younger sister of Wil Shaw, gives Daphne Shaw incredibly wholesome Big Sister vibes. Her character worships the ground her brother walks on and is genuinely distraught at how down on himself he is, something that Ewing executes so perfectly that you can actually feel the pain in their interactions. The sadness in her voice when she speaks to him and of him is almost tear inducing, and the frustration she exhibits when Wil doubts himself is relatable to anyone who’s ever dealt with someone they think the world of expressing their own doubt of their abilities. And her moments of vulnerability, when she stops being the Tough Older Sister and opens up about how her hopes and dreams of living a long life “in a world I finally loved”, they are the proverbial chef’s kiss.
The theme of grief and how we process it is a prevalent theme of this film. Wil’s quest to understand a recent tragedy in his life leads to an interesting examination of a common occurrence in the world. Namely, our tendency to reject the chaos of life and instead try and find a justification or reason for tragedy. People struggle with the idea that sometimes bad shit happens to good people without any sort of agency behind it. The human mind is uncomfortable with the idea of randomness. It seeks patterns where the very well may be none. It’s the phenomenon behind conspiracy theories: there has to be some grand conspiracy behind 9/11 because it couldn’t have simply been a group of religious zealots that carried out a horrendous attack that killed 3000 innocent people. That can’t just happen there has to be more to it. The anguish and frustration that Wil experiences as the result of tragedy is a microcosm of that same phenomenon. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable to say that the latter two thirds of this film don’t actually occur in the real world and are instead Wil fantasizing about some insidious cause to his pain. But, regardless of whether the events of the film happen, they take the viewer on a ride of different genres that fit the stages of Wil’s grieving. He drifts through the New York City night, looking for answers, drunk most of the time, and eventually falls into archaic occult rituals to try and find answers. In the process the film goes from being a noir detective story to something almost like a Clive Barker story, but the idea of grief being something we must learn to live with in some way is always at the forefront. It is first and foremost a rumination on this idea: learning to live with and accept the trauma caused by grief, and to understand that no matter the cause the result remains the same. It is not a film that promises a happy ending, but instead a film that encourages us to work towards one. There is a scene at the end of the film that speaks of grief and pain being ever present in our lives, and it reminded me of the idea of a recovering addict in that every day is a struggle to deal with this thing in your life that is causing you pain, and that it never entirely goes away but is instead something we must constantly adjust to and learn to live with.
When I Consume You is not an easy film to watch. It is awkward and uncomfortable. It takes us down into and back up again through the process of dealing with loss. It occasionally veers into the utterly fantastic but somehow always feels entirely relatable and despite being extremely ugly at times it is also a profoundly beautiful film that finds a joy in letting go and moving on from the things that caused us pain. That ugliness may always be there, but there is always something else that is beautiful to look at instead of the ugliness.