by Tony Schwab, staff writer
“Take Me to the River,” the new film by Matt Sobel, creates an agonizing sense of discomfort by combining horror and cringe humor.
The film begins with a family from LA who are visiting the relatives in Nebraska. The son, Ryder, (Logan Miller) wants to come out as gay, but his parents warn him that this will anger the more conservative Nebraskans. Agreeing to keep quiet, Ryder stands out nonetheless. His sense of exclusion is heightened when one of his cousins is injured while playing with him. Allegations of child abuse are brought against him and he runs away. For the rest of the film, much is hinted at but little is revealed. We never learn what Ryder did. We get a few hints at what drove his mother away from Nebraska, but no real explanation. The film’s entire principles are based around how little the family tells one another.
The movie is defined by four excellent performances. Miller’ Ryder starts out as a somewhat cocky and naive teen, acting superior to his Nebraskan relatives even as he hopes to be accepted by them. When things go wrong he breaks down, crying in private and quivering through his conversations. His mother is played by Robin Weigert, first as a normally anxious mother, second as a frightened victim of circumstance, third as a semi-villain. Her brother is Josh Hamilton. He is the creepiest portion of the movie, with his every gesture aimed at taunting Ryder even as he is too afraid to really confront him. The performance, in its passive aggression, is like an evil rural version of his character in “Kicking and Screaming.” Richard Schiff provides genuine comic relief as Ryder’s father, calm and jokey in the midst of his stressed family.
The movie is extremely creepy, but there is something troubling about the way the effect is achieved. All horror movies rely on making the heroes appear normal and the villains appear at least somewhat inhuman. In this case this means portraying the Nebraskans as stereotypically bigoted and paranoid. In a cinematic climate where Middle America is rarely given much attention, this is unfortunate. Hamilton is given real depth, especially towards the end, but the rest are not. Ursula Parker, playing Hamilton’s daughter, is almost demonic at points.
The other main flaw is a somewhat unfortunate semi-sarcastic choice of end music. After the mood that has been built, an attempt to end on a funny note fails.
Despite these setbacks, which are very common among first time directors, “Take Me To the River” is difficult to forget. It is scarier than a pure horror film because it deals not with violence, but with the horrible awkwardness of tiptoeing around it in polite conversation.
“Take Me To the River” is now playing in nearby theaters.