Mile Zero Directed by Andrew Currie Written by Michael Melski Starring Michael Riley and Sabrina Grdevich Classification: AA Rating: **
This is an admirable but claustrophobic film about a man who kidnaps his son from his alienated wife.
It is superbly performed, and the script ingeniously uses flashbacks to show the breakdown of the marriage. But the dramatic weight of the film, which starts with the kidnapping of the boy, sits squarely on the struggle between a grown man -- Derek, the father (Michael Riley) -- and an uncomprehending and terrified small child.
This makes the film oppressive and, somehow, not illuminating.
There is an additional dramatic nexus that takes place inside Derek himself. In a revealing flashback, Alison, his ex-wife (Sabrina Grdevich), tells him he is guilty not of neglecting his family but loving them too much and too obsessively. His neediness has driven her away.
Derek isn't in a bad situation, as these things go. Alison is reasonable, and has agreed that little Will (Connor Widdows) can stay with dad a couple of nights a week. But Derek can't accept that the relationship is over, and when he learns there is a new man in Alison's life, he tips off the deep end of paranoia. He plants a camera in the child's room and irrationally convinces himself that the new man is sexually abusing little Will. This justifies his next step, the kidnapping.
As the two drive high into the mountainous country outside Vancouver, we learn that Derek's plan is delusional.
Equipped with nothing but a tent and an inflatable boat, he proposes to build a cabin and live in the wilderness with Will.
It doesn't take the child, who is eight years old, long to figure out that something is wrong. When daddy bashes a park ranger over the head with a burning brand from the campfire, the child settles into a catatonia of denial that matches that of his father. And this continues for the rest of the film, as Derek's absurd scheme falls to pieces and he, a manic smile on his face, continues to insist that all is going according to plan.
The film is near-documentary in its depiction of a modern relationship falling apart. There's even a flashback scene, shortly after the breakup, where Derek and Alison get into a sexual clinch and Alison realizes she can't actually allow him to penetrate her. So she reaches into his trousers and kindly masturbates him instead. The scene is wildly humiliating for both of them and, ladies and gentlemen, isn't it the sort of thing you can't wait to relive?
It's only fair to point out that Mile Zero has been highly praised in the usual festivals for its "honesty." But, even given that it's a first feature for the director, is honesty really enough to justify any film? Or do we not have the right to ask for imagination as well?
Derek's descent into delusion is scrupulously recounted but offers little insight into how or why this particular man went down this particular road. Alison is a scrupulously observed modern young woman, but her behaviour and choices are limited by the conventional palette of what a modern young woman does: She tries to be nice, she tries to be understanding, she lies reluctantly (about the new man in her life), she draws the line only when Derek comes walking directly into her house to berate the new man.
In another recent movie about a similar situation, the rejected husband actually sends the new man a box of poisoned pastries. The wife, half-unhinged herself, deliberately places the children in a dangerous situation with the ex-husband. The dramatic stakes rise rapidly.
Nothing like that happens in Mile Zero. People do what they "should" do. Even Derek's breakdown is by the book. And it gets repetitive. There are endless shots of his car speeding up and down mountain roads, endless cuts back to the interior of the car and Will's reproachful eyes.
I couldn't help wondering what might have happened had the park ranger, instead of reciting the no-campfire rules and getting bashed over the head, had been a bit more of a character. Maybe he could have seen the look in the child's eyes, pretended to acquiesce, and gone off to get help. Maybe Derek would spot the move and go after him.
Maybe, in other words, there could have been unpredictable and therefore dramatic relationships. But Mile Zero, like other worthy Canadian films touching on contemporary problems, is content to show us a generic scenario. It closes in on a universe of two people, father and son, and the rest of the world ceases to exist.
It can work for a drama to focus on two people. But when one of them is so unequal, so helpless, and understands so little of what is happening, the effect is merely airless. It's like sitting in on a lengthy session of child abuse.
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