My notes. Warning: impossible to discuss without major spoiler, so if you intend to see the film don’t read on and come back later … In the US, the film opens in theaters and on demand October 6th from Well Go USA!
This is tricky to review, in that – like, for instance, Pet – it seems for a reel to be one type of (familiar) film but then springs a reveal about a major character that shifts it onto a different track. It’s also problematic in that I can’t quite tell whether I hated the movie or the lead character – Chris Peckover’s direction and the performances of the three young stars (Levi Miller from Pan, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould from The Visit) are all excellent, but Zack Kahn’s script stumbles on a segue from suspense to warmed-over torture porn. For all its cleverness, this becomes yet another film in which a woman is duct-taped to a chair and lectured by a sadistic, inadequate male admirer. There’s a particularly seamy angle in that the antagonists are a seventeen-year-old babysitter and her twelve-year-old charge, and Miller is especially effective when childish petulance and whininess undercut has would-be cool sociopath act … but I can’t help but wonder whether I really needed to see this story again, even with Christmas decoration and some post-modern digs at Home Alone (do twelve-year-olds today really care about that 1990 movie?).
In an archetypal snowbound American suburb (the original title was Safe Neighborhood) around Christmas, comedy parents (Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton) leave their frail son Luke (Miller) – who is prone to sleepwalking – in the care of Ashley (DeJonge), who is having trouble with both her current boyfriend (Aleks Mikic) and her obsessive ex (Dacre Montgomery). Luke’s junior stoner pal Garrett (Oxenbould) is around, indulging his friend’s various internet-derived schemes to get Ashley to notice him in that way. Then, in typical trapped-in-a-house fashion, communciations are cut off, shadowy stalkers loom, and Ashley gets closer to Luke as they are chased around by apparent masked psychos. Which … and here’s the twist, as tipped off by a few hints (that cellphone clumsily dropped in a fishtank) … is all a set-up to make Ashley fall into Luke’s arms. When she sees through it, she tries to storm out and Luke angrily punches her. Then she wakes up duct-taped and gagged, and she – and we – have to listen to Luke’s entitled psychopath ranting, with the inevitable game of truth or dare (her bombshsell is ‘did you ever tell Garrett you killed his hamster?’) escalating into ultra-violence. The most interesting relationship is actually that between Luke and Garrett, with the speccy tagalong plainly not filled in on his pal’s plans for how the evening is supposed to go – and how big a body count it’s going to have – and stubbornly holding out against accepting what everyone else realises: that Luke exploits him, and obviously deems him expendable.
The film’s problem is that it’s more interested in the villain than the heroine, which tends to privilege his grandstand ghastliness over her determination to survive – Pet manages much better with a reversal of expectations about its two lead characters. Only in fits and starts does the film give Ashley moments of cunning – mostly, she plays out the captivity movie victim role with thwarted attempts to signal for help or escape. Her best moment, which is nicely not elaborated on, comes during the maniac’s most wistful monologue about his own who-else-could-give-a-shit woes when she pointedly tells him that she knows exactly why his mother stopped tucking him in at night and then shuts up. There are plot issues too, as Luke’s elaborate trickeries are either childishly inept or as fiendishly cunning as the adult murderer in an average episode of Columbo (with a similar loophole) in order to keep the long second act turning over. The big set-piece kill, a black joke at the expense of Home Alone, is well-staged with a rare use of reticence in that we don’t quite see the gruesome result – but it’s also contrived for the benefit of an effect rather than credible in the context of the story. Macaulay Culkin himself went from Home Alone to The Good Son, suggesting that the angelic, resourceful kid tormenting inept adults might be an incipient serial killer – a fun internet speculation is that Kevin from Home Alone grew up to be Jigsaw from Saw – so it’s not exactly a fresh though to trot it out again here.
Like Luke Lerner, Better Watch Out is undeniably clever but, from my point of view at least, impossible to love. NB: though set in an archetypal American town, the film was shot in Australia, where they don’t have snow at Christmas.