Jason Banker's blending of documentary and fiction in this horror film is, for better and worse, a bold and risky move.
“My life is a fucking nightmare.” Those are the first words we hear in Felt from Amy (Amy Everson), the traumatized artist at the centre of Jason Banker’s latest film. As she dons an animal costume and wanders the streets of her neighborhood, she talks vaguely about an incident that still haunts her. The specifics of what happened to Amy never get revealed, but the implication of a sexual assault and/or rape is clear. Banker and Everson’s refusal to divulge what Amy went through is part of the film’s detached yet highly subjective mode; this is a story told through Amy’s perspective, and Banker respects that some areas are too difficult to deal with.
Part of that choice might have to do with Felt being a blend of documentary and fiction. Much like Toad Road—Banker’s highly underrated sophomore feature from 2013—Felt gradually weaves a narrative around documentary footage. Banker met Everson at a bar, and as he learned more about her he eventually asked if she wanted to make a film with him (the film has no screenplay, but Everson shares a story credit with Banker). While watching Everson, it’s easy to understand why Banker felt she was a compelling subject; she has a magnetic presence, and the film is as much of a showcase of her as it is of her art. Everson creates costumes and art pieces that can range from the perversely funny (a painting of the infamous Goatse image on a dinner plate) to the downright creepy (a series of unsettling masks, skin-coloured outfits, and underwear with genitalia sewn on it). The costumes are both a reaction and an outlet for Everson; they’re creations inspired by her own experience with sexuality and violence, and by wearing her outfits it gives her a sense of control.
Despite a short 80-minute runtime, Banker takes his time before establishing a narrative. With the help of her roommate, Amy tries to get out of her depression by going to parties, bars and checking out potential dates on OKCupid. Most of Amy’s attempts turn out to be disastrous, like when one of her dates drunkenly explains that roofies are a myth, and most of her interactions only heighten her feelings of living in a hostile, male-dominated environment. Things start changing for the better once Amy meets Roxanne (Roxanne Lauren Knouse) and Kenny (Kentucker Audley). Kenny and Amy start dating, and Roxanne quickly becomes one of Amy’s closest friends.
The docu-fiction approach Banker employs is, for all intents and purposes, a mixed bag. In Toad Road, the blending of real and fake material created a strange, transfixing atmosphere that made the film’s thematic power all the more resonant once it transformed into a more straightforward genre film. In Felt, the style only works intermittently. The set-up, which I presume is made up of most of the nonfiction material, is the strongest part of the film because of how Banker effectively uses the underlying tension of not knowing what’s fact or fiction to emphasize Amy’s feelings of fear and anxiety. And not to knock down Kentucker Audley—I’m a fan of his, and he does a fine job here—but once he shows up the authenticity of Banker’s footage goes away. He arrives around a third of the way in, and his attempts to blend in with the cast of nonprofessionals tends to be stilted. It’s a risk that doesn’t pay off, making it difficult to look at Amy’s relationship to him as anything but suspicious.
But Banker is a filmmaker who, with only two fiction features under his belt, takes plenty of risks. Felt’s finale, a swift and violent one that’s more tragically inevitable than clichéd or predictable, shows just how intelligent of a director Banker is. Yes, the climax delivers on the unspoken promise of blood and gore that “slow burns” tend to give, but Banker deliberately avoids providing a clear motive or explanation for what happens. That choice puts the focus back on Amy, her own experiences, and the cycle of violence that she’s been involuntarily thrown into. If Felt expounded on those themes more successfully, it could have easily become a film more powerful than it is admirable. Early on, there’s a sequence where Amy’s roommate takes her out to a bar with her boyfriend and a potential date for Amy. Amy’s behaviour clearly grates on the two men, and at one point they stare her down with a look of pure anger. In a film filled with disturbing imagery of inhuman masks and costumes, it’s the moments where Banker communicates the real, pervasive threat of misogynistic abuse that provide the most chills.