Reviewed by Michael Erb
Writer/Director/Co-Producer Greg White has a decent little thriller with Separation. Troubled couple Jack (Peter Stebbings) and Liz (Sarah Manninen) have moved their family to the ominously named town of Hemlock Lake. While dealing with their incommunicative daughter and Liz’s meddling mother, the two are also dealing with the aftermath of a recent traumatic event. In between the bitter fighting and accusations, Jack and Liz don’t seem to notice that every news outlet is reporting there’s a serial killer on the loose. However, they do notice some townsfolk acting strangely around them. It seems like the new neighbors are spying on them, which isn’t helping Liz’s already fragile mental state. Once night falls and people try to get into the house, Jack and Liz are forced to confront their issues and their attackers.
Separation combines elements from multiple subgenres to make a home invasion film with a little familial drama and hallucinogenic madness. For the most part, it succeeds at what it’s trying to do. The tension and sense of dread ratchet up as the family starts their first night in the new home. White also does a good job tying up every plot thread that’s introduced. They all seem disparate at first, but those story lines all come together for the ending. It may telegraph how things are going to play out before the third act, but it’s still an enjoyable and slightly surprising ride to the finish.
The movie hangs on Stebbings and Manninen, and luckily they turn in fine performances. As Liz, Sarah Manninen is the picture of someone barely holding onto sanity. Even when her visions don’t quite live up to the idea of a psychotic break, Manninen makes you believe she’s coming apart. Peter Stebbings shows a palpable mix of frustration and anger that gives Jack some serious edge. The supporting actors don’t quite measure up to the leads, but considering their lack of importance to the movie it‘s not a big problem.
There are few areas that don’t quite work. Some shots go on for far too long, mostly to suggest how awkward and difficult it is for Jack and Liz to be together. These shots stop being artful after a few minutes and start feeling like someone’s padding the runtime. Some liberal scene trimming could make it feel like you’re not watching Peter Stebbings rake leaves in real-time. However, when Liz starts losing her mind, the movie starts throwing images out rapidly to induce a state of shock. It works for the first three frames and then becomes painfully tedious. You get that Liz is going insane, but you kind of hope for a steadier descent into madness. There is one vision that takes its time to unfold is terrifying, showing a family dinner that quickly turns sinister. It’s by far the most powerful moment in the movie.
The special effects don’t do Separation any favors. Liz’s trauma-induced visions are mostly filled with standard imagery. People gain slightly demonic faces and the background goes all fire-and-brimstone. Also, there is an important scene ruined by a bad prop. It comes right at this moment when we learn why Liz is so distraught and why her relationship is falling apart, but the representation of these troubles looks so cheap and plastic. Sorry to spoil anything, but the moment could have been remedied with a more convincing cadaver.
This indie surprise is pretty good. Separation has as a solid story and the leads carry the movie through its rough patches. Give it a try if you have an itch for something outside the usual studio fare.