By Tony Schwab, staff writer
“The Automatic Hate,” the third film by Justin Lerner, is an indie flick with all the economy and stiltedness that comes with the label. There is always a feeling that a layer of needed polish is missing, especially in the editing. The pacing of scenes, minimal locations and often questionable lighting always make the viewer more aware than normal that they are watching a film. But on a certain level, intentionally or not, this makes the film’s pulpy, ridiculous plot feel more appropriate.
The story begins when Davis (Joseph Cross), a chef in a long-term relationship with a ballerina (Deborah Ann Woll), meets a woman (Adelaide Clemens) claiming to be his cousin. From here he discovers a long held family secret relating to his arrogant, Yale-grad psychologist father, played by an excellent Richard Schiff, and his equally arrogant Harvard philosophy major uncle (Ricky Jay).
The movie fuses elements of horror and suspense. The secrets kept by the two fathers take on the role of villain, lending a sense of creepiness to everything else. Like most recent horror movies, “The Automatic Hate” tries to thrill its audience less with jump-scares and more with deeply disturbing characters, whose eeriness is hinted at and then revealed very slowly. This seems to match a recent trend, where conventional horror movies relied on technical mastery to create horrifying images; newer ones rely on strong, well-paced scripts.
What a large majority of horror and suspense films, new and old, have in common is a reliance on pop psychology. Behind every murderer, it seems, is a child who was never loved enough. “The Automatic Hate” has as its themes grounded in very simple psychological ideas. One is the idea of children slowly turning into their parents. The other is the idea of the sublimation of repressed desires into a creative outlet. These things never work out as neatly in real life as they do in film, and are somewhat laughable to those who know more than a few Freud quotes. Nonetheless, Lerner makes them effective by building them into the entire structure of the movie with an impressive neatness.
The acting is solid all around. Cross carries the weight of his strict father with a very believable tension. He speaks quietly to cover it, but his body language always reveals the underlying unease. Schiff and Jay use their typical smartest guy in the room roles as covers for their extremely traumatized personalities. As with Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” it is amazing to see how well character actors can perform in meaty roles when given the chance.