75 min | 2015 | (USA) | Dan Berk & Robert Olsen
An independent film that premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2015, Body is written and directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen and produced by Last Pictures. Body was released to Video on Demand on December 29 and is definitely worth watching.
Body traces a rather familiar plot—reminiscent of Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997)—but it utterly transcends and transforms that plot in its development of character, its superb acting (by all four main characters), its allegorical depth, and the beauty of its ending.
Three twentysomething friends—Holly (Helen Rogers), Cali (Alexandra Turshen), and Mel (Lauren Molina)—are hanging out on Christmas Eve playing Scrabble, drinking, and smoking pot when Cali comes up with the idea of crashing her “uncle’s” house. Once the friends are there, reveling in its wealth, it comes out that the house isn’t Cali’s uncle’s house after all but the home of a family she used to babysit for. As the friends are about to leave (Mel and Holly aren’t happy about Cali’s deception), a man (Larry Fessenden) comes in, alerted to something’s being amiss by the many blazing lights. As the friends rush past him to get out, Holly inadvertently knocks him down the stairs. The friends’ elaborate plan to explain his dead body to the police goes awry when they realize he is not, in fact, dead—merely paralyzed. As they struggle with what to do, deep and finally deadly rifts emerge among the friends.
It is clear from the beginning that Cali is the more aggressive and reckless of the friends: she breaks into the house, after all, and lies to Holly and Mel about the owner. A seemingly unimportant detail, however, establishes Cali as quite a bit more than merely aggressive and reckless.
The film opens with the friends playing Scrabble and with Cali spelling the word “Satin,” believing she’s spelling “Satan.” Holly and Mel laugh at her ignorance (you get the sense that both of them have higher intellectual aspirations than Cali does) and the scene moves on. But this moment crucially marks, I think, Cali’s role as a kind of modern-day Satan—a “Satan” moreover who doesn’t look like Satan (no hooves and horns), hence the confusion with “Satin.” Satan has always been the master of deception and, in Cali, Satan adopts a glamorous disguise.
Indeed, the Scrabble board is deeply resonant. “Sion,” for instance, is a variant of Zion, a word often used to indicate Jerusalem, the birthplace of Jesus. “Sion” and “Satin” together suggest the allegorical depth of the struggle the girls undergo, which is only heightened by the fact that it’s Christmas Eve. (And I should add that a table leg also figures into the climax of the narrative!)
Cali’s role as Satan is intriguingly heightened by the film’s clever use of misdirection, as it suggests threats coming from somewhere other than the girls themselves. As they are driving to Cali’s “uncle’s” house, they see a car stranded on the side of the road: as Cali slows down, a bearded man comes up to them and Holly and Mel yell at Cali to drive away. When Cali laughingly asks what they’re so afraid of, Mel replies, “Oh, brutal murder,” suggesting the supposed danger of men in deserted places.
And as the girls arrive at the house, the film borrows from the slasher film by offering subjective and unspecified point-of-view shots from behind bushes, suggesting a looming threat.
The girls also panic when they hear a man enter the house (even though they are the intruders). Indeed, the fact that Holly knocks him down the stairs is a result of her panic—of her sense that someone else is the threat. In the end, though, their only enemy is themselves. Their enemy is Satan, cloaked in “normality.”
As events unravel, the man whose life the girls hold in their hands, Arthur (Larry Fessenden) turns out to be a harmless groundskeeper, interrupting his Christmas Eve to do his duty. Despite the fact that he spends the film lying on the floor paralyzed, Fessenden does a great job of expressing a goodness, humility, and ability for forgiveness that contrasts starkly with the relentless selfishness of the girls. If there is a Christ in this parable, in this struggle of good and evil, it might well be Arthur—and his fate offers what hope the film may (or may not) offer for redemption.
As the girls wend their way through the moral dilemma Arthur’s (living) body poses, Cali voices all the wiles of Satan in our world. She is the voice of self-interest—urging Holly and Mel that they need to do what shapes the best outcome for themselves and their families. When they realize Arthur isn’t dead, Cali tries to get them to believe it’s a difference that doesn’t matter. They thought he was dead, Cali says, so what’s the difference if they fail to get him help and wait until he actually is dead? (The Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke looms large in this film.) And finally she even suggests that since they thought he was dead, what’s the difference if they actually kill him?
One of the really brilliant things about the film is, in fact, its use of the word “different” and its variants (what’s the difference?) The film takes us on a journey of moral distinctions. What’s the difference between killing someone by accident, refusing to help save a life, killing someone purposefully? The film is a fascinating rendition of a mundane modern battleground of God and Satan—goodness and evil. It ends with a beautiful rendition of “Silent Night, Holy Night” and an explicit invocation of sacrifice. But is the sacrifice holy or unholy? The viewer is left to ponder that for themselves.