The Curmudgeon


Saturday, March 02, 2013


Richard Powell 2011

A twenty-three-minute short from Zach Green's production company Fatal Pictures, Familiar opens with a series of family scenes. John Dodd, a bejowled forty-five-year-old played superbly by Robert Nolan, is shown lying next to his wife, taking breakfast with wife and daughter, driving wife and daughter in the car, engaging in desultory supper-table conversation about his wife's unappreciative employers, and receiving some important family news in the marital bed. These scenes are riveting and nerve-racking, because over them we hear Dodd's thoughts about his family, his wife the prison warder and his daughter the parasite, his fantasy of escape, and the obsessive depths of his hatred and desperation.

The horror of Dodd's predicament is depicted very adroitly. The wife and daughter, played by Astrida Auza and Cathryn Hostick, are given no characterisation beyond the dowdy self-centredness which is all Dodd's merciless gaze detects in them; hence we empathise with his wish to be rid of them while becoming increasingly nervous about how he might manage it. When Dodd's wife tells him a baby is on the way, his plans for flight are ruined: tragically, he is too normal and middle-class (and perhaps, in his own convoluted way, too decent) to simply run out. With secrecy and ruthlessness, he deals with the problem; but an unforeseen complication arises, first signalled with admirable subtlety when the subject of his internal monologue changes from I to we.

There are many such touches. On a couple of occasions Dodd's corrosive glance flicks momentarily towards the camera, as if the viewer were just another of his psychological burdens. Appropriately, Familiar gains a good deal of mileage from subverting its audience's likely expectations of a familiar, family-values horror film. After an extraordinary scene in which Dodd suffers qualms, then confronts his second self in the bathroom mirror and is ordered to yield control, the screen blacks out and Dodd is next shown in bed with blood on his face. As it turns out, the blood is not that of his family, and he begins to discover that birth control is not necessarily a simple matter.

Finally, Dodd is driven physically to separate himself from his demon; but even here the gruesome visuals are abetted by the verbal wit of Richard Powell's script ("you don't understand what you've gotten yourself into") and Nolan's voiceover, whose tone shifts constantly between the worst aspects of fatherly, elder-brotherly and man-to-man: now snide, now patronising, now nagging, now bullying. The coda is restrained yet grim, suggesting that Dodd's attempt to rip the monster out of himself means only that it will continue to haunt the survivors from a new hiding-place.


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