Northern Irish omni-filmmaker George Clarke’s follow up to the risible The Blood Harvest is a considerable improvement on his usual splatter fare, although it does suffer from a number of common problems – most of which could be solved simply by sharing the workload a little.
Attempting a psychological thriller with what are predominantly amateur actors and a one-man production unit, Clarke makes a fair fist of it thanks largely to three factors: firstly, Anthony Boyle, who rises above the material to give a performance that feels natural and honest. Secondly, the foreign location shoot (in Norway) that makes up the opening third of the film, and gives the first act a necessary sense both of place and dislocation. And finally Clarke’s idea, an interesting enough premise if one that wags the story rather than the other way around. And that’s the writer-director’s problem in a nutshell; instead of allowing the story to lead the plot, he lets the narrative force a resolution that feels cheap and unearned.
Clarke has divided Onus into two “chapters”. The first, accounting for roughly the first third of the running time and the lion’s share of the promotion, involves Boyle’s character Keiran waking up in the middle of nowhere, chained to his ex-teacher (Render) and with a gun taped to each of their free hands. Taking its inspiration loosely from the torture porn likes of Saw and The Human Centipede, this segment sets up a mystery for Chapter Two to address, alongside its moderately effective meditation on grief. In some ways Chapter Two follows the course of Christopher Nolan’s debut feature, with twists and turns aplenty – but sadly ones that ultimately play out rather tamely, with this hour-long second act handicapped by a resolution that’s already been spelled out by Mr Andrews at the close of Chapter One. Thankfully Clarke avoids unnecessary bloodshed until the bitter end, making Onus far less exploitational than it might have been, staying with the drama rather than filling his film with the usual cheap shocks.
The photography is lovely and digitally crisp, one of Clarke’s stronger points. But this encourages him in one of his more prominent weaknesses, as a number of shots and scenes are permitted to drag on long beyond the point at which they’ve performed their function. And if the pacing is rather sloppy, the sound design is worse still, with the dialogue in a handful of crucial scenes – including the climax – disappearing amid the background noises that the lack of ADR has helped to promote. With a couple of the actors appearing rather too self-conscious in front of camera, filling the space with over-performance, Onus is far from accomplished. But it will repay modest expectations.
Special Features: Audio commentary / Behind the scenes / Out-takes / Trailers
ONUS / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: GEORGE CLARKE / SCREENPLAY: GEORGE CLARKE / STARRING: ROBERT RENDER, ANTHONY BOYLE, VIVIAN JAMISON, CAROLINE BURNS COOKE / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 26TH