★★★★ / ★★★★
There’s something incredibly sinister going on in the seaside village that is composed of only adult women and young boys. “Evolution,” directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, is a most daring and controlled horror film, so muted in sound, color, and dramatic parabola that a number of its images will certainly be seared in my mind for quite some time. Unless a film Renaissance occurs, a movie like this will never be made in America. See for yourself.
While swimming in the ocean on his own, Nicolas (Max Brebant) sees a corpse of a boy lodged between the rocks. Terrified by what he had come across, he rushes home and tells his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), hoping that some help would be summoned to acquire the body from underwater. Instead, the mother responds with a certain calm. From the look on her face, we suspect she knows exactly what’s going on. Nicolas suspects this, too.
The images are crippling in austerity. Notice the lack of decorations in the house. There are no pictures on walls or tabletops, there is no television or radio, not even books or musical instruments. The food served looks gray, gooey, as if worms were taken directly from the ground and served in a stew. One looks outside and every house looks exactly the same. Even the women look alike and they all wear the same dress. One looks at the village as a whole and it is surrounded by rocks and dirt. There are no trees, or dogs, or cats, not even a hint of laughter when boys play. The exposition is precise and efficient. The rest of the picture functions on this level.
We actively form evolving hypotheses about what might be occurring. For some reason, despite the fact that they look and act perfectly healthy, the boys are told they are sick and so every time they go to bed, they must drink medicine—four drops of dark, mysterious liquid mixed with about thirty milliliters of water. Their mothers watch them drink the entire mixture. Even the wildest hypotheses might not hold a candle against what’s truly taking place. When the screenplay by Lucile Hadžihalilović and Alante Kavaite finally unveils its dark secrets, it takes advantage of our experiences with modern horror films.
We grow comfortable because we are convinced we know the whole story and how it might reach a resolution. Some of us might even envision a specific ending. In order to subvert our hopes and expectations, the picture’s pacing becomes slower, almost meditative, nearly static later on. This is not the kind of story where a hero or heroine comes to rescue the children. This is not even a story where the child who makes a discovery finds himself trying to save his friends.
It is easy to imagine that filmmakers with less imagination, discipline, and freedom would have turned the third act into a telling of evil getting its comeuppance—such a cheap and tired avenue for the audience to reach some sort of catharsis. It’s because in horror films, we’ve seen potential being squandered too many times. Not here. Here is a film that looks evil in the eye and doesn’t blink. We feel our hopes for a much-needed happy ending wither away in place of growing uneasiness and despair. Cronenberg would be proud.