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A Year in the Death of Jack Richards

Directed and written by Benjamin Paquette

Starring Vlasta Vrana and Micheline Lanctôt

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Classification: 14A

Rating: *½

Made two years ago, and after a run at several film festivals where it picked up some awards, this professional feature from Canadian filmmaker, Benjamin (B.P.) Paquette is an ambitious first effort, though often more ambitious than accomplished. Shot mostly in black and white, the film explores the line between sanity and delusion in the story of a theology professor in his 50s who is an inmate in a mental hospital. A series of audiotapes from his interviews with his therapist provide the main progression of the often murky story.

Jack, played by veteran Canadian character actor Vlasta Vrana, is discharged from the hospital, and after an encounter at an employment centre, is directed to take a job working as a janitor at an apartment building. At the apartment, Jack is surrounded by apparently friendly tenants who introduce themselves at his door. He is supplied with a furnished room, which includes the recurrent presence of a couple of lascivious young women looking for assistance with their plumbing.

But we keep going back to his tapes. As we listen, we are obliged to stare at a static black and white photograph of a wild-eyed bearded man, who resembles the Russian monk and Romanov family intimate, Gregori Rasputin.

There's an obvious debt to Roman Polanski rental horror stories ( Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant) as we are gradually led to believe that Jack may be at the centre of a conspiracy. He believes the residents are members of a cult who abducted his daughter. According to his audiotape commentary, Jack may, in fact, be a sacrificial king of the apartment complex, who will be ritually killed in the spring of the year.

Or, perhaps everything that happens may take place in the psychiatric inmate's mind. With everything up in the air, a viewer might be forgiven for finding this chain of ambiguities more pretentious than intriguing.

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As summer turns to fall and winter, Jack has a couple of significant encounters. He meets a woman of about his own age (Quebec actress Micheline Lanctôt) with whom he bonds. And his former brother-in-law (Harry Hill) comes to visit, and the two men get drunk and argue about Jack's past.

The plot's Twilight Zone-like entanglements might be more palatable if the film's execution were more adept. Apart from the reliably gruff Vrana, the acting ranges from mediocre to amateur. The character who hires Jack, named Dan (Daryl Hunter), wears possibly the worst bald wig outside a joke store. In some close-ups, Vrana's untrimmed eyebrows threaten to engulf the screen. There's one particularly static scene in a hotel room where the camera operator seems to have crouched into the corner and fallen asleep. Perhaps he or she dreamed the whole thing.

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