When Alfred Hitchcock experimented with the idea of a “one-shot film” in 1948, with the movie Rope, it befuddled many viewers and critics. If he was going to make a film, why would he modify its aesthetic to imitate a different medium entirely? Why would it be in real-time, woven together to fabricate the loose illusion that there are few if any cuts? At the time, the whole thing felt stagey and overly theatrical to people who probably would’ve preferred to just see the play in theaters.
75 years later, though, the illusion of a film taking place in real-time, in one location, is often captivating. Maybe people just don’t go to the theater anymore. Or maybe everyone is so inundated with MTV-style editing that a slower pace which relishes in the passage of time can be a kind of pleasant escape.
That’s often how it feels in the new genre-defining film, Brooklyn 45. It’s stagey by intention, with the chamber drama quality of a play in one or two acts, and feels like Agatha Christie by way of Sam Raimi. The new Shudder film is set just after Christmas, 1945, the first time the holiday was celebrated after the atrocities of World War II. American military and intelligence officers gather together at the bequest of their friend, Lt. Col. Clive Hockstatter, whose wife has recently taken her own life. While they expect a somewhat glum reunion, they (and the viewers) could never anticipate the weirdness which awaits them.
Brooklyn 45’s Suspicious Séance
When you’re stuck in a room with a group of people, it’s really important that the characters be interesting or magnetic enough to maintain attention. They mostly are in Brooklyn 45; again, they’re a little theatrical (slightly overacted, given to monologuing, melodramatic), but, combined with the quaint old-school aesthetic of the film, this is more often charming than not.
There’s Marla (Anne Ramsay), a legendary interrogator and intelligence officer who has settled down to a life in D.C. with a blandly polite husband (Ron E. Rains) and a limp. There’s Archibald, a burly yet flirtatious Major who is caught up in a legal battle over war crimes. There’s the uptight and angry Paul, another Major who is Clive Hockstatter’s best friend, and who served under him alongside Archibald. And then there’s Clive himself (Larry Fessenden), a widowed man at his wit’s end who has lost all meaning in life and has sunk to the bottom of a bottle; that way madness lies.
They’re an interesting bunch, bonded by war stories, wounds, and a lingering cynicism and bitterness from the war. Clive has more in mind for them than just a dinner party, though. He wants to conduct a séance, as silly as it sounds. He wants to know if there’s anything after death, if his wife is just gone or if a part of her remains, if life is completely meaningless for him now that the war’s over and he’s alone. He wants to make contact with the other side.
Larry Fessenden Kills It
This is where Brooklyn 45 makes one of its boldest choices, and completely nails it with an extended monologue from Clive about his wife’s death and his search for meaning, from religion to metaphysics and beyond. Fessenden is incredible here, the camera enamored with him as he threatens to veer off the path of sanity before swerving back into something more human.
Fessenden is known as a cult director who created some of the best indie horror films of the past few decades thanks to films like Habit, Wendigo, and The Last Winter, but he’s actually a very underrated actor, beyond the performances in his own films. He has a kind of beat-up Jack Nicholson disposition, but with an aloof Gen X hipness, even at 60. He plays a very different type of character in Brooklyn 45, a tight-ass military man, but there’s something similarly unique about the character that makes him almost automatically more interesting than anyone in the room. It’s a truly brilliant performance.
That’s the big transition point of Brooklyn 45, an epic monologue that shifts the film into supernatural gear when a séance takes place. This is one of those films that are inherently difficult to review, because there are so many incredibly unpredictable moments. Wherever you think the séance is going, it’s not. It’s rare to have a film where you legitimately don’t know what to expect, and yet Brooklyn 45 consistently surprises, despite being self-consciously awash in certain stylistic tropes and choices.
War, Paranoia, and American Nightmares
Ted Geoghegan is building something with his filmography, and it’s interesting to watch. With its Golden Age of Hollywood palette and shot composition, its wild marriage of mystery, war, horror, and thriller, and its stagelike presentation, Brooklyn 45 is an extremely different movie from the historical, grisly action of Mohawk and the gloomy horror of We Are Still Here. And yet, it continues Geoghegan’s exploration of American history and the traumas that have shaped it (and our present moment).
Like a cinematic Howard Zinn, in different ways, his films combine to create a sort of underrepresented American history of tribalism, paranoia, scapegoating, and bloodshed. It’s remarkable how he can carry a similar thematic current across stylistically different films, but he does. It’s kind of difficult to compare Brooklyn 45 to the others in that way; they’re ideological siblings but distant aesthetic cousins. The new film feels more like a whodunit, or Roman Polanski’s great adaptation of Death and the Maiden. It’s not exactly scary, though it has its moments, and it’s not action-packed, but that’s not the goal.
Ultimately, Brooklyn 45 is an intellectually stimulating political and historical analogue to our current moment, and a fun experiment a la Hitchcock’s Rope. It can be a little cheesy, a bit over-the-top, and undeniably stagey, but the artifice seems part of the point, and doesn’t detract from what’s a truly original, clever little film with strong performances and one man’s masterclass.
After premiering at this year’s SXSW Festival, Brooklyn 45 will stream on Shudder and AMC+ on June 9th.
This story originally appeared on Movieweb