Billed as a psychological puzzle box with supernatural leanings, Lavender (2017) has plenty going for it. It’s a good-looking production, evocative in mood and often imaginative in its camera movements and editing tricks. Writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly (The Last Exorcism Part II, 2013) and co-scriptwriter Colin Frizzell play with lost or repressed memories to keep both the protagonist and audience in the dark, and for a while, it’s a sufficiently involving process, following the breadcrumbs as they come before being led to the eleventh-hour revelations. Alas, what it adds up to is less than the sum of its parts — but what polished, atmospheric parts.
With her memory practically wiped, ever since her family was killed in their home 25 years ago, photographer Jane Ryer (Abbie Cornish) tries to live a normal life. Her relationship with husband Alan (Diego Klattenhoff) has been rocky, but their love for their 10-year-old daughter, Alice (Lola Flanery), keeps them together. Throughout her career, she has grown obsessed with shooting old houses, and it’s not until coming across one particular home that Jane realizes it might have something to do with her splintered memory. When Jane is late to pick up her daughter from school, she ends up getting into a car accident, brought on by the vision of a young girl in the road. Waking up in the hospital with severe memory loss, she eventually progresses with help from Liam (Justin Long), a psychiatrist. Then, once Jane begins receiving mysterious ribbon-wrapped boxes, she’s encouraged by Liam to pay a visit to her childhood home in the country to unlock the truth behind the childhood trauma that her brain has kept a secret all this time.
Deliberately paced, the film is all the more absorbing for taking its time in setting up the pieces and inviting one to accompany Jane on her “is-she-crazy-or-not?” journey. As Jane begins receiving said boxes, one is actually unsure as to whether Jane is imagining it all, sending them to herself, or that she has a secret admirer with twisted intentions. Through it all, director Ed Gass-Donnelly employs nifty stylistic flourishes, including a slow-motion car accident. More impressively, the film opens with a frozen-in-time tableaux of a farmhouse crime scene in the 1985-set opening with young Jane (Peyton Kennedy) before revisiting that crime with a convergence of the past and present for the big climax. Separate dreamlike moments where Jane follows someone into a hay bale maze, finds a red balloon in a cornfield, and gets lost in a bed sheet that leads her into a different location help put the viewer in sync with Jane’s disoriented mental state. The film also knows how to turn childish things into a creepy counterpoint, including innocent nursery rhyme “Lavender’s Blue” and a game of tag, and the jangling tones of Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson’s music score are suitably intimidating and eerie.
As the anguished Jane, Abbie Cornish (Seven Psychopaths, 2012) plays it for keeps. That her character is an amnesiac for most of the film is a testament to Cornish in that she plays the role with such commitment and depth, making Jane more compelling than she has a right to be. She also has to walk the line of an unreliable narrator on screen; is she a victim or is she a murderess with amnesia? Two supporting roles that each scream out, “Red Herring,” might have packed more surprises if they weren’t filled by name actors, but here they are: Dermot Mulroney (Insidious: Chapter 3, 2015), as Jane’s Uncle Patrick, and Justin Long (Tusk, 2014), whose role as psychiatrist Liam makes even less sense when closely scrutinized.
Lavender features familiar devices, like the daughter who knows all from being able to talk to a ghost or side characters existing to help the protagonist, but they only seem to serve the mystery in terms of throwing the audience off. As the machinations of the script pile on and it becomes clear what it’s been working toward, the rest of the film ends up feeling all too gimmicky and even questionably exploitative. After everything, the immediate reaction is, “Is that it?” Fortunately, there’s almost always a striking, sharply composed shot to admire in Lavender that stops one from writing off the film completely. It will be exciting to see Ed Gass-Donnelly helm another film that is this technically assured but also more satisfying on a storytelling level.
Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films, Lavender is currently showing in select theaters and is available on VOD.
2.5 stars out of 5