The secret admirer is a figure that splits the difference between romantic and creepy, and Sean Garrity touches that sweet spot with his new feature Blood Pressure. This tale of a Toronto woman who finds herself inflamed – then possibly imperilled – by a series of unsigned notes left on her doorstep doesn’t let on whether it’s a love story or something more sinister until the viewer has already been hooked – not in spite of the scenario’s ambiguity, but precisely because it feels like things could go either way.
Michelle Giroux plays Nicole, a 41-year old pharmacist whose businessman husband (Judah Katz) is rarely around and whose teenaged kids (Jake Epstein and Tatiana Maslany) affectionately take her for granted. She’s so bored that when a customer mentions she’s flying to Bulgaria for surgery, Nicole expresses excitement – for the trip, she adds quickly, not for the procedure. Garrity and his co-writer, Bill Fugler, are careful not to overplay the nature of Nicole’s encroaching midlife crisis, making it seem less a case of a person who is absolutely miserable than one who suspects that she’s living her life on mute – politely keeping her thoughts and desires to herself.
It seems plausible, then, that the letters that arrive professing intimate knowledge of Nicole’s personal life and exhortations for her to spoil herself are actually just self-penned pep talks – a distaff variation on the old Fight Club split-personality trick. As Blood Pressure goes on, however, it’s clear that Garrity is less interested in tricking the audience than watching Nicole follow her anonymous correspondent’s instructions (including a visit to a firing range) and observing the fallout on each aspect of her life.
There is an explanation for what’s going on, and it’s actually more satisfying than one might expect considering how steeply most thrillers plummet downhill in the home stretch. But Blood Pressure is first and foremost a character piece, and Giroux is excellent in a role that requires a subtle physical and behavioural transformation. She also has to play a number of key scenes solo, and she manages to sell the idea that Nicole is slipping into a cloak-and-dagger lifestyle while still letting us see the tentativeness underneath.
The performances of the rest of the cast are uneven – Katz isn’t done any favours by his standard-issue distant-workaholic role – yet the overall texture of the film is recognizably realistic, which is as much a byproduct of the supple, unfussy location shooting as the dialogue. As he has in the past, Garrity serves here as his own editor, and the film feels tight in a way that’s not overly constrictive. Most of the film’s best qualities are similarly understated, but that shouldn’t mean that it gets underestimated. Where so many thrillers use their generic trappings as an excuse to trot out familiar clichés, Blood Pressure gives the impression that it’s discovering its true potential right along with its heroine.