There is something equally thrilling and nerve-wracking about sitting down to watching a film you know next to nothing about. On the one hand, it is great to try to walk into things as blind as you can for the chance at a great, unexpected watch. On the other hand you might be setting yourself up for a waste of an hour and a half. It is the chance you take. Greg White's Separation turns out to be much more in the first category than the second and gave me one of the best feelings one can get from a twisty, turny thriller film which is the almost immediate desire to watch it again.
Separation follows the story of Liz (Sarah Mannien) and Jack (Peter Stebbings) who are a married couple seemingly on the razor's edge of keeping things together. We meet them as they are in the process of moving into a lovely vacation looking home on the water's edge in a small town called Hemlock Lake. The film opens with a grade school age girl riding her bike down a country road without a care in the world. It is this simple, beautiful opening scene that (amazingly) puts you on edge. You immediately fear for the girl. Not because of some lurking shot looking on from the woods, but because this level of peacefulness must not be real. This begins a steady diet of this type of balance on the part of the viewer between what is seen, what it might mean and what we think may happen next. We see the girl get home to Liz and Jack, sure, but to what end?
The couple seem perched on the edge of falling apart in their marriage for what seems like a complicated web of reasons. There is also the constant, vitriolic nagging from Liz's mother (living with them) that seems to undermine both Liz and Jack in different ways. It is her mean spirited language aimed at Jack and hissed at Liz that sets a tone of a tense household. We slowly learn that Liz takes medication which I think was either anti-psychotic or anti depressant or something in that vein. Liz seems to drift between dedicated mom and wife to spacey, frightened victim without a real barometer one to the other. Sarah Mannien does a fine job of having to balance this out and having to ramp up this reality disconnect as the film progresses. Considering the spite from her mother toward Jack and the initial negative read we get on him, I thought he would just be another wooden, sullen male stand in character. Instead, Peter Stebbings infuses Jack with a bit of charm, humor and life and also does very well in his role.
This is important because as Liz seems to slowly but surely go down the rabbit hole (terrifying visions that seem to reference a possible miscarriage, hearing voices etc) we need an anchor of normalcy and Jack provides that quite well. We begin to feel a threat closing in our our family (news story of a possible serial killer on the loose, strange behavior by the realtor, bizarre interaction with a neighbor bearing flowers) and I started to wonder if the film would devolve into a home invasion/survival type of story with the paint-by-numbers rush to the conclusion.
Thankfully, it does not and we're instead given a thrilling and unsettling march to the final act which left me smiling and impressed. That is not to say that the speeding up of the film's pace and the reveals are all handled perfectly, but, I give a great deal of credit to the filmmaker and crew for doing a whole lot right and avoiding glaring sinkholes of what all they could've done wrong.
Another area that I was very impressed with was the overall production quality – from the fimmaking style itself to the unnerving but never overwrought score to the performances, I never felt the film bogged down under an independent budget. Separation takes its job seriously and delivers a palatable feeling of tension and unease at a slow pace initially and a fevered pace as the seemingly random parts fly together to form the completed story.
All in all, I was glad to have been pleasantly surprised with Separation: a bracing, unexpected bit of thriller/horror that challenges you to stay ahead of the action but not get too smart for your own good. Its clever, sharp production and clear style set it a measure above many indie films of this kind and I hope Greg White has many more where this came from.