In the head, under the skin
is a jarring journey into the mind of a troubled woman, writes Donald Clarke
THE PHRASE “psychological drama” is somewhat overused in criticism. After all, what film, play or book is not driven by conflicting tensions within its characters’ psyches? Even the hollow ciphers that inhabit Dan Brown adaptations exhibit crude signs of inner struggle.
Snap, the first feature from Carmel Winters, hitherto an acclaimed playwright, is, however, very much the real thing. This densely layered, relentlessly harrowing piece is not short on formal experimentation: different film media rub abrasively against one another; contrasting acting styles alternately lean towards
mannered artificiality and uncomfortable, messy naturalism.
But, at its heart, Snap is a rigorous attempt to disentangle the warring strains within its protagonist’s troubled brain. You couldn’t say it was fun to watch. But it unquestionably signals a real surge forwards for Irish cinema.
Our base camp in this complex journey is the bland, soulless flat belonging to Sharon (Aisling O’Sullivan). A film crew has been invited into her home to consider the aftermath of an obscure trauma.
Everything about Sharon speaks of bitterness and aggression. She scowls at the overhanging boom microphone. She snaps at the unfortunate director. Before long, however, she is opening up a discussion about “the marks on the kid’s body”. She explains that her son doesn’t smoke and – after pulling out newspaper reports featuring photographs of a body – explains that certain visible welts could be due to impetigo, a contagious skin infection.
Sharon appears to have become some sort of local pariah. Hate mail falls through her letterbox. Photographers lurk in her back garden. In one of several bitterly ironic outbursts, she describes her home as the “cradle of evil”.
This part of the protagonist’s story, presented via the documentary film crew’s footage, is intercut with scenes showing Stephen (Stephen Moran, excellent), Sharon’s teenage son, interacting with a young boy. We see Stephen – alternately friendly and menacing – playing records on a gramophone and making faces out of the child’s food. Has the unfortunate tyke been kidnapped?
A third strand features home footage shot by Sharon’s father. Gradually, hints towards the characters’ motivations emerge.
Snap is not without its outbursts of grim humour. The late, great Mick Lally, making his last appearance on film, turns up as a drunken layabout whom Sharon picks up in a chip shop for a bout of unlovely carnal fumbling. For the most part, however, this is an impressively serious attempt to explain why ordinary people do extraordinary things.
Not all of it works. Though the superb O’Sullivan delivers her lines with jarring sincerity, some of her speeches reveal their origins in a one-woman play. There is an overly theatrical tone to the grander pronouncements and, at times, the voice feels like that of an internal monologue dragged blinking into unwelcome sunlight.
But these odd misjudgments of tone don’t detract from the impressively cinematic ambience of the piece. Much of the credit for the fact that the film looks so much like a film (not something you could say of every domestic release) should be put the way of cinematographer Kate McCullough.
Previously lauded for her work on His & Hers, McCullough manages the tricky feat of blending a variety of stocks and media into an unexpectedly cohesive whole. The eventual decision to employ split-screen could, in less adept hands, have come across like shameless gimmickry.
A recent winner of the Dublin Film Critics Circle’s prize for best Irish film at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Snap feels like a real original. It is to the film’s credit that – being so strange, you see – one can hardly imagine where the director will go next. Be brave and give it a go.