This piece is written by our guest writer Redmond Bacon.
Caleb Landry Jones was everywhere last year, playing supporting roles in movies as diverse as The Florida Project, Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Displaying such a great range, with every character wholly different, his own moment in the spotlight has been well overdue. Sadly, for him, To The Night, which sees him play a trauma victim suffering from psychotic episodes, will not be the movie to catapult him to leading man status.
He plays Norman, a man who survived a deadly fire as a child which killed his parents. Now he is a father himself, living in an atelier-like apartment with his girlfriend Penelope (Eleonore Hendricks ). Its hard to say what exactly he does as a job, although it looks like he might be an artist — creating a model of the house that his parents died in and the opening scene showing him at an exhibition. He is in desperate need of help, his psychotic breakdowns leading to him smashing up the apartment and even raising his hand to Penelope. Its not a pretty film to watch, and he is not an easy character to like.
Nonetheless, Penelope still loves him, and together they try and find a way to get the monkey off his back. Coming at a time where the depiction of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety is becoming more and more present in popular culture, actually seeing people suffer from psychotic breakdowns is still unexplored ground. It resembles Hereditary in the way it uses trauma as a lifting point to explore mental illness, yet where the former tied this emotion to a compelling larger narrative, To The Night feels completely weightless — meandering along until it reaches an unsatisfying and unearned conclusion.
Its a problem of form. The narrative is essentially aimless, cutting to emotion instead of focusing on a basic structure. This approach can work — for example, in the exemplary Madeline’s Madeline — if the director knows exactly what they are doing, but Brunner’s grasp on his own material is too loose, preferring to constantly add in more when less was enough. It doesn’t help that he constantly mixes his metaphors, stuffing the movie full of distorted bodies, foetus-like objects, and images of fire and burning. Without one central concept to rally behind, however, these images simply stack on top of one another without actually saying anything.
It’s a movie of extremes, oscillating between moments of quietness and loudness with nothing in between. Characters either whisper to each other or scream — nobody talks in a normal voice. This is represented by the lighting scheme of the movie, bathing everything in a deep psychotic red for dramatic scenes, and using soothing blues for quieter interludes. While the acting is evidently strong, and the commitment to the roles to be lauded, this loud soft loud approach is a lot of sound and fury that doesn’t actually signify anything.
There are even times when it doesn’t make sense. We see him come out of a mental institute at the beginning of the movie. Later on, when he is obviously a threat to his girlfriend and child, why doesn’t she just call them again instead of letting him cause such obvious pain? She may herself might be suffering from an unhealthy attachment to the man who beats her, but this is explored insufficiently. The movie then finds itself awkwardly justifying domestic abuse as a byproduct of psychosis — still making Norman the hero despite him desperately needing to be put either in jail or a sanitarium. With more empathy and better storytelling, it could’ve been displayed better, but as it stands, its lazy filmmaking, trivialising the horrors of domestic violence.
Jones is really trying here, throwing himself into the role with complete abandon. Working without vanity, its an obvious showcase for his strengths as an actor. Nonetheless, he needs better material to stop his histrionics from descending into pure incoherence. With a face well suited for horror, I can imagine him pursuing similar roles in the future. Lets just hope next time, he stars in a film that actually wants to say something meaningful.