All style and no substance makes for a beautiful but boring thriller.
Style will carry a film fairly far. It is, after all, a visual medium. In a genre film it’s especially useful in elevating the expected into more artistic territory. With a photographer-turned-director like first-timer Tyler Shields, style appears to be the home base and comfort zone from which his expression springs. Which makes for a unique looking film debut, but also drives home a very basic film lesson: style is swell, but story is everything. Final Girl (not to be at all confused with The Final Girls, a slasher film spoof slated for October) is Shields’ first film and while every frame exudes the talent of a man who understands lighting, costuming, coloring, and staging, he has managed to make a film that would have made an amazing photography show but is ultimately a frustratingly scarce horror film. The tale of a gorgeous young assassin facing off against four sadistic teenage boys to the death is an intriguing premise for a thriller, and yet Shields proves that premise and style can only take a film so far.
Set in some ambiguous time period where teenage boys own tuxedos and wear them to the local diner, and assassins in training wear cocktail dresses and heels, Final Girl doesn’t offer much in the way of backstory. Character motivation, it’s implied, is up to the viewers interpretation. So when the film opens with Wes Bentley interviewing a young girl and he succinctly mentions the death of his wife and child, that is apparently all the understanding we’re meant to have of why he’s chosen this newly orphaned girl, or who they are meant to work for, or how it is they choose “bad guys” to go after. It’s not much, not much at all. And in the following scenes where Veronica, played by a very blonde Abigail Breslin, goes through a series of training sessions with Wes Bentley’s William she doesn’t think to ask him all the questions that any normal viewer would have only ten minutes into the film.
While always inexplicably training in her fancy dresses and heels, Veronica is led through a series of very specific trainings: she has to exert enough energy in a choke hold to cause her mentor to pass out, she needs to rely less on her gun and more on her physical prowess, and she’s injected with an LSD-like cocktail so that she can simultaneously experience her worst fear (a fear that is sadly irrational for someone supposedly so badass) and experience what her enemy would be going through should she be able to drug him before facing off. It’s all very specific and very leading. Could it be she’ll need to do all these same things in the near future?
In an early scene we meet the four teenage boys who will soon be Veronica’s prey, led by The Hunger Games’s Alexander Ludwig. With nary an introduction its established quickly that these well-tailored gents have a bad habit of picking up pretty blondes, taking them to their hangout in the woods, and engaging in a game of cat and mouse with them before serially killing them. Why has William picked up on these boys’ hobby when local police haven’t seemed to do so? Especially with a noticeably high count of missing females in the area and a presumably easy trace back to the young men? No idea. But when Veronica shows up at the diner, blonde and appealing, the boys take the bait without question. Thus the tables turn and though she feigns fear at the beginning, Veronica uses her (very specific) skills to give the boys the revenge they deserve.
The rest of the film is split into four fight scenes between Veronica and each of the boys. Based on the limited screen time each guy has had, we know approximately one thing about each of them. Perhaps the writer, Adam Prince, thought it would be clever to define each of these young men by one particular trait, either playing with a weakness they have, or a sadistic trait they possess, but because it’s all laid out so clearly in the one shot each boy is given on their own, when those same traits are used against them by Veronica it’s hard to see much cleverness in it. Presumably, we can only work with what we’re given.
Each frame shrouded in a perfect vignette, a pool of light, and the brightest of colors popping amidst the darker backdrops, one gets the sensation after a while that they’ve seen this film before, but as a spread in Vogue. There’s no denying Shields’ photography talent, but if the point in photography is that the visual story told is succinct and intriguing, this method does not translate to a 90-minute film. Stills from the film will undoubtedly lure in viewers, but turn those perfectly staged frames into action and the energy is lost.
The dialog is pithy and unnatural, attempting to keep up that ambiguously old-timey vibe. The ending is expected but no point in searching for character arcs or discovering anything new about any of the characters that wasn’t fed to us within the film’s first 20 minutes. It’s hard to watch a talented cast look so beautiful and perform absolutely nothing of substance.
The cinematography and set design and lighting aside—since they were all performed by someone other than Shields—we can only hope that before his next foray into filmmaking Shields picks up a few tips on the basics: story and directing actors. Even in a genre as forgiving as thrillers where a little action can make up for a lot, there are necessary building blocks. Final Girl is the best-dressed girl at the party with absolutely nothing of interest to say.