Antoine Dodson's worst nightmare
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival back when it was called Replicas. Aside from the header image, headline change, and the addition of a rather spoiler-heavy trailer, the review is unchanged. Sorry for the confusion.]
I can't remember the last time I felt as physically uncomfortable as when I was watching Replicas. My muscles tensed up early in the film, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn't calm down them until the credits rolled. Usually when I feel uncomfortable while watching a movie, I pause it and give myself a moment. In a theater, that was not an option. So I just had to sit and suffer while the tension built.
There is nothing as terrifying as a home invasion film. The victims aren't just sexually promiscuous teenagers or people who build their houses on a cursed burial ground. They're anybody. They're everybody. Psychopaths come into the home of some random innocent family with the sole intention of destroying—or perhaps stealing—their lives. If done right, nothing even comes close to creating the same kind of absolute horror. Films like Funny Games stick in your head and remind you that sometimes living on big, deserted properties isn't always the best idea.
Replicas is a lot like Funny Games, except without the self-referential humor thing. It's completely serious from beginning to end. As horrible and uncomfortable as the jokes in Funny Games often are, they add just the slightest bit of levity to the proceedings. Replicas has no such thing, keeping the horror grounded entirely in reality.
Mark (Josh Close), Mary (Selma Blair), and Brendon (Quinn Lord) Hughes have gone to their house in the woods in order to recover from a terrible tragedy. Not long after they arrive, Bobby (James D'Arcy), Jane (Rachel Miner), and Jared Sakowski (Alex Ferris) show up bright and early to give them some firewood. Hearing the noises, Mark goes out in his robe to meet them, and after some awkward conversation, they invite themselves over for lunch.
It's immediately apparent that something is wrong with the Sakowskis. Bobby is overly cordial, Jane is all kinds of creepy, and Jared seems a bit too excited about the hunting rifle he got for his birthday. Their mannerisms are just sort of... off. Even though I had no idea what the film was about going in, I realized immediately that the Sakowskis were going to do something awful to the Hughes family. Based on the title, it was clear that, whatever that awful thing was, it involved stealing their identities.
What I extrapolated from there, however, was completely wrong. I imagined something akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where some sort of aliens or monsters would come and steal the bodies of the humans. Those mannerisms just seemed inhuman to me. But no, the Sakowskis were very much humans, which makes what they do so much worse.
The ever-increasing tension in Replicas is beautifully rendered. Before things take a turn for the truly horrific, there are a lot of conversations, each one getting slightly more uncomfortable than the last. The eerily specific questions from the Sakowskis and the long, pauses in response do a lot to make everything feel very real and very dangerous. The scenes seem longer than they actually are, but nothing ever drags. The editing is sparse and deliberate, allowing for each shot to develop its own sense of unease. The discomfort is lingered on for exactly the right amount of time at all times, and things never let up. For the short moments where it seems like things might finally be okay, something awful is right around the corner.
I am afraid of the dark. More specifically than that, I am afraid of dark windows. Unfortunately for me (and for them), the first floor of the Hughes family's house has lots and lots of windows. The entire dining room is basically open, which is lovely during the day but terrifying at night, and the windows are pitch black for most of the film. That was enough to have me consistently afraid, but it went far beyond that. The windows, although their presence is taken advantage of a couple of times, act more as a reminder of just how exposed the family is than an integral part of the action.
As for the action itself, it is just as slow and painful as everything else. Again my thoughts turned to Funny Games, but as much I wished it would, nobody ever looked at the camera and winked at me or asked me how I felt about what was going on. Everything played out with the utmost seriousness, the fourth wall left entirely intact.
What makes the Sankowskis different from the killers in Funny Games is their motive. The characters in Funny Games are sick and depraved for the sake of being sick and depraved. They have no ulterior motives other than to get some enjoyment (and some food) out of a suffering family. The Sankowskis, however, do have an ulterior motive, and it has nothing to do with suffering. The suffering is simply a means to an end.
The same could be said about the film itself. There is some amount of suffering that comes with watching Replicas. If you have any human emotion, it's unavoidable. But imposing that suffering on the audience is not the film's express purpose. Replicas is not an exploitation film, nor does it exploit its imagery. And that's likely a big part of why I found it so affecting and effective. Every moment is perfectly captured to bring the gravity of the situation onscreen. As things get increasing uncomfortable for the Hughes family, so too do they get worse and worse for the people in the audience.
As a home invasion story, Replicas is second to none. It's the kind of movie that makes you want to double and triple lock your doors, bar your windows, and move to a city where maybe people will be able to hear you scream. It gets under your skin and reminds you of how fragile you are and everybody you know is. I'm not going to forget Replicas. I just know that will pop up in my head when I'm looking at dark windows or watching an uncomfortable conversation. I'm going to think about Bobby, Jane, and Jared Sankowski, and hope that my life isn't worth stealing.