“We tried until we found it cruel.”
The first line of any film is something to consider. As a writer, you want to set the tone and major themes early on, like how Cary Elwes starts The Princess Bride with, “check out this shit you blithering monkeys.” Maybe these first few words are the key to understanding the artisanal misery porn that is The Believer (2021).
So, there's a LOT going on in this picture. We follow Lucas (Aidan Bristow) and Violet (Sophie Kargman), a quietly sniping married couple just a month after Violet “supposedly” had an abortion without telling her husband. Right away, writer/director Shan Serafin flips the script by presenting Violet as the deep-end gone, bible(?)-beating zealot, while Lucas is an out of work nuclear physicist with deteriorating physical and mental health (though as far as I know, there aren't as many Lifetime movie parallels with that last one). I just gotta say, Aidan Bristow is a likeable, well-rounded protagonist, but Sophie Kargman absolutely KILLS it as the willowy-voiced Violet. I completely buy this woman as unstable from the first frame. There's a scene early on where she tries to seduce Lucas (dressed in her underwear and moving like Frankenstein) that is just so patently cringey and works perfect for this unique sort of button-down psychopath. She also inflicts some gnarly damage, despite having a lower body count than most gender reveal parties.
From this intro, we cut between Lucas's crumbling homelife and his therapy sessions with Dr. Billy Zane (Billy Zane). To the movie's credit, in another unusual move, they let you know within the first fifteen minutes that this WILL be a mindfuck story. Think a cross between Jacob's Ladder and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The issue, though, comes from a lack of clarity and a VERY bleak, oppressive atmosphere. Sure, it's a matter of personal taste, but I'm really not a fan of the Ari Aster school of replacing 'horror' with 'misery.' And while there is a pretty well-laid twist at the end, it doesn't have the concise 'gotcha' of Jacob's Ladder and just ends up raising more questions.
My old teacher Michael Janover once said one of our assignments was so depressing he wanted to tattoo a touchtone on his chest and punch-dial his phone number with an icepick. Maybe not a total 1-to-1, but give the guy some credit. He wrote Mr. Boogedy.
But let's go back to that first line - “we tried until we found it cruel.” It's obviously important or it wouldn't have opened the film. Lucas is almost supernaturally level-headed, a nice bit of subtle foreshadowing that he's been through something like this before. There's an undercurrent of repetition, sure, but there's also 'tried.' Tried to make this marriage work. Tried to coexist with someone you're clearly not compatible with. Tried and tried and tried until the toxicity of the whole thing destroys you from the inside. The film itself gaslights you with its contradictions (Lucas needing crutches one minute but not the next, going from employed to unemployed between scenes, etc). That's some brilliant meta-storytelling and a lot of the individual scenes work REALLY well (Serafin's theatre background is on full display) but, like Lucas's decalcifying bones, it doesn't hold together.
The Believer is by no means a bad movie. The characters, relationships and atmosphere are all on point. Hell, I didn't even mention Violet's unsettling parents (Susan Wilder and Lindsey Ginter) or a masterfully executed hypnosis scene involving colored lights and visions of a bloody hammer. When they all work in a bubble, though, you start to long for what could have been. But hey, maybe that's the point. Maybe that's the perfect disconnected simulation for a relationship gone so, so wrong.
You can find The Believer for rent on Amazon Prime. If stuff like Midsommar is your bag, you'll want to experience this at least once. Just maybe chase it with something more uplifting, like Seagram's.
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