The second of the Home Sweet Home films takes the home invasion setup and moves it out and away in a clever kind of way. More often than not, we’re used to people being invaded in their own homes, their own spaces so the contrast of the violence and/or bad treatment of them against their own belongings is a stark one. This makes the whole thing more relatable, more personal and allows the viewers’ imaginations to fill in the gaps. When you remove that aspect of a home invasion story, you really have to change it up a bit to make up for the ‘gimmies’ of the more expected narrative.
In the case of John K. D. Graham’s Home Sweet Home, the victim relocates herself to a parental home out in the boonies after facing an eviction, bill collectors and what seems like a general quagmire of nothing-good in the city. Gwen Stevens (Alexandra Boylan) tries to rope her law enforcement brother Bayless (Andrew Boylan) into setting her up after the eviction but he suggests she instead head out to their year-since deceased parents’ home to regroup herself. You get the distinct impression that Gwen has burned a few bridges in her time but she doesn’t seem all that offensive and/or awful of a person really, maybe just distract-able. Anyway, out she goes.
This gives director John K. D. Graham a chance to showcase the beauty of rural New Mexico (I’m guessing outside Albuquerque) which is something I quite appreciate. I never understand why folks don’t use their surroundings more, at least for nothing more than setup shots and to give a sense of the environment. In the case of that area of New Mexico, it’s quite pretty and gives a sense of scope.
Intermixed with Gwen’s story, we’re introduced to a pair of road warrior type crazy people (a man and a woman) who seem to make their living robbing highway convenience stores but seem to sustain themselves by the high they get from screwing with clerks and customers and the like. It is that one variable of a robbery that a victim cannot control, whether the primary goal of the robber is, in fact, money, or something less tangible. Yeesh. Just gives me the willies thinking about it. Back to them, this establishes them as being folks-not-to-be-screwed-with primarily because it appears one or both of them seem to have a screw loose. Having just watched the re-release of Terrence Malick’s masterful Badlands, I had highway robbers/killers on the brain and especially the frayed reality in which one would resort to these actions, this life. The roles are more/less reversed in this one over Badlands though, but more on that in a minute.
Gwen does encounter the pair at a gas station not far from her parents’ home and runs afoul of Kristi (Raquel Cantu) by simply getting out of her car. This sets the stage for the events to come but thankfully not in the way in which I expected. Gwen soon has to deal with Kristi and her partner Van (Christopher Demsey) in the confines of her parents’ home but not because they followed her there but because they’d been living there. Quite a clever changeover of the typical home invasion/invaders setup that I am surprised hasn’t come up in genre’ films more considering the home foreclosure mess over the last several years. The only recent one I can really think of is Darren Lynn Bousman’s Mother’s Day and even then the home stuff serves only as background to the family choir of crazy using it as a jumping off point.
This sets about the second half of the film with a bunch of cat-and-mouse stuff in and around the house and what I found to be pretty realistic reactions to the situation by Gwen. Unless it is explained or part of the plot that someone is some base-level badass, I just have a hard time buying that anyone goes from wallflower to Rambo in the blink of an eye. Thankfully, Gwen struggles and freaks out in ways that seem more grounded in reality. Points to them for reinforcing this. It becomes pretty clear that the driving force in this whole thing is Kristi with Van just more/less along for the ride. This inevitably sets up the final go-round but with two females in the lead spots, not just one as the victim. This was refreshing to see because you get so used to the hulking dude stalking the helpless woman-type scenarios in this kind of situation. Changing the game up a bit in that regard was welcome and smart.
That said, the tension of the second half of the film plays against the somewhat pedestrian nature of our two villains and of the pace of all that happens. It is hard to tell what-all Kristi and Van are willing to do, and, it is hard to gauge where Gwen’s head is which adds together to create a slightly disjointed sense of suspense. Add to that an odd and unsettling undercurrent of sexual manipulation (that isn’t really fleshed out) and I felt as though I didn’t really have a spot from which to sort it all out, villain versus hero. Plus, as the tension waxes and wanes so does your commitment in Gwen’s survival and the outcome of the ordeal which is not a feeling you want if you want your audience perched on the edge of their seats. Some slightly stilted dialogue on the part of Kristi also detracts from the tension level and her screwy antics don’t unnerve as much as just distract.
There is an interesting and twistedly clever idea that shows up in the final part of the film which references back to earlier sequences which, at the time, seemed screwy and/or out-of-place. The true capacity of one of the characters comes out in a way I didn’t see coming and I was left grinning about it. I won’t spoil this turn, but it made me wish some of the implied back story was included somehow earlier in the film. It adds a depth and utter screwed-upness that could have ratcheted things up a bit had we known it earlier. I’m staying vague here because I didn’t know to look for this stuff going in and I think it helped matters in terms of viewing the film.
So all in all, Home Sweet Home was a decent home invasion film but could’ve been stronger had they employed earlier the seedy, grindhouse-like idea that perked up toward the tail-end of the film.