Directors/writers Adam B. Stein and Zach Lipovsky have created a film that is so multilayered that I am legitimately mystified over how to review it. It’s the everlasting gobstopper effect, where new flavours are revealed in every other scene, each one more tasty than the last, until you reach that delicious fizzy reward at the end. In fact their film is so heavily paved with revelations that I have already resorted to candy metaphors to avoid inevitable spoilers.
Freaks tells the story of 8-year-old Chloe (Lexy Kolker) and her dad (Emile Hirsch), who live in squalor in a decrepit boarded-up house at a time when the world is in a state of unrest. Television news reports in the background inform us that a major event took place 10 years ago, and that a significant portion of the population has become dangerous. Chloe has spent her entire life in hiding, unsure whether her dad’s reasons are real or fabricated. Meanwhile, an old ice-cream man, Mr. Snowcone (Bruce Dern), sits outside their house trying to lure Chloe to his truck.
That basic synopsis may conjure images of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, William Friedkin’s BUG or even Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby, but as the plot unfolds we find ourselves in a world better described as an amalgamation of Vincenzo Natali (Cube), Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special) and M. Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable). What is at first a grimy and dark story of deprivation, soon becomes one of science fiction and intrigue, with cleverly subtle comic book leanings.
But that’s it! No more revelations from me… and I mean it this time!
It’s wonderful to have Emile Hirsch back on the scene following his Hollywood blacklisting, so to speak, after his 2015 assault charge. You will remember his career-defining performance in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, as well as roles in Speed Racer, Milk and Lone Survivor, amongst others. His talent is undeniable, as showcased here in Freaks. His character is billed simply as “Dad” and his persona balances a fine line between mentally unstable and strategically responsible, while maintaining a perpetual uncertainty for the audience to wager. He commands the screen with authority and, in contrast to his recent appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, he posses a chameleon-like quality with the ability to adopt a wide range of types.
Bruce Dern, who coincidentally also appeared in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, is brilliant as the strange ice-cream man whose agenda poses a sinister mystery. So many of Dern’s recent performances have pandered to his age, giving the impression that he is a fragile old man, and yet in Freaks he is as actively fit and mentally alert as either of his co-stars. It’s a joy to see him revel in such a prominent and deliciously complex character, as well as being a part of a truly original and contemporary film such as this.
Young Lexy Kolker is also a standout as the film’s focal point, Chloe. With an impressive string of television and film roles to her name, she has the markings of a future star. Her performance is evenly measured and profound, suggesting that she’s working with a thorough comprehension of the story at hand, as well as the intricacies that entails for her role. At times adorable while at other times terrifying, her turn in Freaks is one that might (or at least should) be a career-defining moment.
Lipovsky and Stein’s script is flawlessly written and wonderfully realised. They have crafted an intelligent film that is rich in texture, high on intrigue and entirely compelling. It also serves as an origin film with the potential to be franchised, however, for the sake of integrity I hope that it isn’t.
Freaks is a full-bodied movie going experience and one of the most thought-provoking films of the year. It’s also a definite sleeper that will likely arrive below people’s radars, and so with a little luck it will find its audience in time and establish itself as the cult favourite it deserves to be.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Freaks’ will be screening in select Aus cinemas in NSW, ACT, VIC and QLD from September 12. In the US, the film opens on September 13.