A mesmerizing Patricia Clarkson can't carry this thrill-less thriller.
There’s nothing like a Friday the 13th for survival film releases. 2015 is a rare year in that we’ll have three such Fridays, so if you squandered February and March’s there is still time come November. This probably works in filmmaker’s favor in that we might just be in the mood for more thrillers, horrors, and harrowing survival tales this year. But demand or not these overdone genres need to step up their game if they are going to continue to keep viewers’ interest. October Gale, a somewhat weepy drama masked as a thriller, is not the model on which others should be going. With its undercooked plot and overly-sentimental back story the result is just another split-personality home invasion thriller minus the thrills.
Helen (Patricia Clarkson) returns to the cabin she and her recently deceased husband have had for years. He died a year ago in a storm on the lake that surrounds their island cabin and she returns to pack up his things. Their life together flashes back as she cleans—moments of intimacy and flirtation. She’s set to leave the cabin when her motorboat has engine trouble and she ends up stuck for a few days with only a smaller paddle boat. Her quiet cabin reverie is disrupted, however, when Will (Scott Speedman), a young man with a bullet wound in his shoulder, drags his way into her living room. She patches him up (she’s a doctor) and tries to get some answers out of him about his situation. He won’t tell her and they back and forth more than once about her wanting him gone while knowing they are on an island and with a storm brewing neither of their small boats would last.
When a local comes by to check on Helen, Will recognizes him as one of his assailants. Helen lets slip that she has an injured young man in her home and asks the man to take him to the mainland. When he bolts instead, untying her small boat, she realizes Will had reason to be scared of him. Now trapped together on the island, they anxiously await the return of Tom (Tim Roth), the man out to kill Will.
With the tone of the film split almost down the middle, director and writer Ruba Nadda (Cairo Time, also starring Clarkson) spends too much of the film focusing on Helen’s past with her husband, setting up her grief as an overwhelming element. Then she abandons this dreamy state too quickly when Will shows up with a new plot. Granted, as a savvy doctor and obviously strong-willed woman—she’s an ace with her rifle—Helen is well-prepared for the danger Will brings to her doorstep, but her interactions with Will almost negate the nostalgia so recently thrust on us. In an entirely misplaced scene she kisses Will, the confusion of her actions playing out on her face and literally mirroring the audience’s confusion as well. The implication that her grief could be overcome by some new romance—not to mention the strange fact of their age differences and whether or not Nadda intended this as some sort of statement against the usual older-male-younger-female dynamic—or that a distraction from her grief through life-threatening danger is also a good thing, all seems very naive. Her connection with her past is so overly developed that it only makes the lacking understanding of her fondness for Will more pronounced.
Clarkson and Speedman are two of those interesting Hollywood-vampire types, well-preserved and with dashing boyish/girlish type looks. Clarkson could act the heck out of an encyclopedia, her cleverness and subtlety always an engaging watch. She carries her badassness like a pro but is given very little opportunity to showcase it. Speedman is adorably likeable, almost to a fault—the hardness we’re supposed to believe around his back story just doesn’t add up in his demeanor.
Not to decry cinematographer Jeremy Benning’s work, but it’s not exactly difficult to turn on the rain machine, add some wind and make a situation seem dire. The cabin is cozy and the obvious safe haven of the film, which rather makes one wonder why so much of the film takes place inside it. Clearly the more unnerving locale would have been outside. But when it gets down to it, October Gale isn’t that harrowing at all. Tim Roth is underutilized as Will’s sadistic would-be-murderer and when his reasoning is revealed—in a highly yawn-worthy monologuing scene—any and all tension crumbles.
In some ways October Gale is a story of two people (Helen and Tom) dealing with their grief in two very different processes. But unfortunately the film forgets to draw that parallel and thereby add any level of depth. You’ll find more scares in Home Alone, not to mention more emotional connection. Clarkson and Speedman showcase both their talents, but neither can be a life vest for a film lost in its own storm.