A teenage boy and a middle-aged man wake up in the wilderness chained to one another. They each have a gun duct-taped to their hands and attached to a nearby tree is a note instructing that one of them must die before nightfall. As they attempt to free themselves, it becomes apparent that whoever has orchestrated their situation is close by and watching their every move. With no hope of bluffing their malefactor, they grapple with the notion that one of them must die. Before long, their state of mind begins to fray and a heavy sense of dread looms.
And with that simple – I guess you could say – Saw-inspired concept, Onus presents itself as a smart and gripping thriller. The first striking quality about the film is the setting and the manner in which the characters are placed in their environment. The camera moves slowly, with effective tracking shots and a practical use of hand-held, and the score adds an ongoing uneasiness that compliments the circumstance.
Forgetting that the film has been prefaced with a “Chapter One” title card, I was curious as to how the film would maintain its tension. The interaction between the characters advances so quickly that by the time the film is halfway into its 100-minute running time, all avenues and reveals seem to be exhausted. Fade to black. The “Chapter Two” title card appears. Ah, of course.
Following the events in the woods between the two captives, we are introduced to the boy’s mother and the man’s wife. The mother struggles to comprehend what happened to her son and sets about finding the truth. From this point the appeal of the film is lost, and what remains is long-winded, poorly written and substandard. The proficient cinematography and controlled pacing of the first chapter are thrown out the window and replaced with an incessant use of hand-held, an overuse of colour grading and a whole lot of over-long cross dissolves.
Director George Clark (Battle to the Bone, Splash Area) has drawn his influence from two separate genres and stitched them together without much consideration for covering the seams. On one hand he demonstrates a high level of skill in producing a good-looking film on a shoe-string budget, while on the other hand he has exposed his weaknesses and delivered 45-minutes of footage that feels like a 2nd year student film.
Was I so impressed by the first half of the film that I can forgive the second half? Or was I so disappointed by the second half that I can’t forgive the first? Onus has torn this reviewer down the middle, and just like the lop-sided nature of the narrative, my verdict hinges. My quick instinct is to judge the film evenly with a rating of 5 out of 10. However, when I replay the initial events in my head and think of the two consummate performances given by Robert Render and Anthony Boyle, an extra point finds itself well deserved.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10