Tuesday 25 May 2021

The Question in Bodies #35: Come True (2021)

(Spoilers, but not as many as usual. I feel a bit bad about writing this, really. Content warning for visceral disappointment.)

The setup for Anthony Scott Burns’ Canadian hauntological piece Come True is pretty dense, and it's a credit to its director that it doesn’t feel like it is, that the opening act feels measured and leisurely, and that the strangeness of the protagonist’s situation is anchored by a sense of normality, a sense that her experiences and behaviours are logical extensions of where she is, and because of that, her odd situation does not feel so odd.

Eighteen-year-old high school senior Sarah Dunne (Julia Sarah Stone) won’t sleep at home, for some reason; she bunks down in the play park or at a friend’s place while she can. She times her visits to her mother’s house – she still has a key – for when her mother is not there, and grabs some coffee, takes a shower, changes. We don’t find out what went wrong between Sarah and her mom, but the locks have not been changed and her mother keeps trying to call her or catch up with her in the house and talk to her, and we’re supposed to infer, I think, simply that the situation is messy and painful, as it would be in real life. It is enough. Sarah does not sleep much, and is plagued, as you would be, I suppose, with nightmares, most of which are architectural, labyrinthine, and end with a shadowy, hunched figure who turns around with a sense of growing threat. While getting coffee – she drinks a lot of coffee, as you would – she sees a noticeboard ad for a sleep study. You get paid to sleep for three months, it says. The thought of a consistent bed and a decent income is enough for her to respond. She applies.
Getting all that in the first ten minutes or so without it feeling at all rushed is pretty tremendous. Julia Sarah Stone’s performance is really beautiful, expressing without a whole lot of dialogue a young woman who is physically and emotionally exhausted by an unsustainable life situation in an absolutely believable way. You feel for her, without really even needing to know what happened at home. In fact, it doesn’t matter. It’s just prologue.

Come True managed to keep up the promise of that first sequence, I would probably at this point declare that it was a marvellous low budget gem, and extol you to see it as soon as you can. But it doesn't, and the way it doesn't is sort of disappointing. We meet Cronenbergian scientist Meyer (Christopher Heatherington), the director of the study, and his staff of postgrads and postdocs. Sarah spends a night in a bed in a spacey monitoring suit, while the scientists monitor her. There are some faintly ominous plot points: there only two women on the study, and the researchers won’t say why, which is fair enough, scientists do that, but the other one vanishes after the first night and isn't seen again, for example. But there is a feeling now that the density of story elements is beginning to run away from the movie, so while we might think this the disappearance might matter, it does not, and in fact after that young woman’s absence is registered and signified as ominous, it never gets mentioned again. And it it doesn’t work as misdirection either, because there would have to be some indication that it’s a bait and switch. I wonder if, in editing, some resolution to this plot point was discarded, buried in a scene that got cut. In the same way, we might think that creepy Dr Meyer might be significant, but after a strong introduction, he is more or less abandoned.
The things that are picked up on are these: Sarah is shown a picture of the creature from her dream and has a panic attack; and a young man who mansplains Philip K Dick to Sarah in a bookshop and who shortly after shows signs of following her around turns out to be Meyer's research assistant Jeremy (Landon Liboiron). Sarah is about ready to bail, but she has nowhere else to go. When she finds out who Jeremy is she threatens to expose his behaviour to his boss, which would of course wreck the whole experiment, unless he tells her what the experiment is.

And here is where the meat of the film’s premise comes up. The research group are using a device that is able to detect, decode and reproduce the signals that the eye sends to the human brain. This is presented as uncontroversial science, something that has been used and proven by other scientists, and that's a great narrative conceit, in that this is a thing that (as far as I have been able to find out) has been mooted by researchers as speculatively possible, but which in the real world hasn’t been done yet. But in presenting this slightly science fictiony thing as a mundane fait accompli, it allows the film to make the really magical thing into science, and to help us to suspend our disbelief. What Meyer and his team have done is to use this technology to work out what people see when they dream.
The twist here is that they have discovered that people often see the same things, and that the hairless, sinister hunchbacked figure, his face in shadow, who features so heavily in Sarah’s dreams, appears in the dreams of many people, and indeed in the dreams of everyone in the experimental sample.
This conceit is worth a closer look. It’s the stuff of any number of online creepypastas, the 21st century development of the friend-of-a-friend story, and it holds a common lineage with popular memes like the SCP monsters, the Shadow People and the Slender Man. Each in its own way chills because it suggests a universal experience, and the story that perhaps everyone dreams of the same figure at some point is especially potent because so few of us have a consistent grip on our dreams. When we dream, our identities become inchoate, fluid. We do things we would never do, or live in places where we have never lived, and in the context of the dream, we have always done these things, and we have always lived there. Dreams that recur etch themselves into our waking life. But we may also dream vivid single dreams that reorder our sense of self to such an extent that our memories alter themselves to accommodate the misapprehension that we have been dreaming these same dreams for years. Dreams change us, and we are often powerless to resist them. It is the easiest thing in the world to say, “Oh my God, I have had that dream too!” And you may be a hundred percent sincere, although you have in fact never had that dream, because dreams are a vector through which our memories may be parasitised by outside ideas, and they are so uncatchable that they might be altered by someone suggesting that they are something they are not.

In exploiting this,
Come True picks up on something powerful and unsettling, which, like the best of these ideas, sacrifices the chance of working for everyone for the possibility of working all that more elementally for someone. If you’re among that category if someones, this is great, but it is also where the film starts to lose its grip on its own narrative. The dark figures begin to intrude in threatening ways on the waking world, for reasons that are not explained. And in fact, because of the way that the film is set up, these intrusions cannot be explained. There is no way any of the characters have to access an explanation. And that’s fine – horror films like this are supposed to be uncanny and inexplicable. The problem lies in the way that the film loses Sarah and instead becomes about Jeremy and who he is.
Sarah’s feelings towards Jeremy soften after she sees the footage of him dreaming about her. And yes, dreaming about her like that. Honestly, you would think that this would be the absolute creepiest thing, but no. And then she discovers that the nickname he has in the research group (“Riff”) is a Rocky Horror reference. You would think that the creepy guy’s got a nickname based on retro cinema and has erotic dreams about you is enough to make you utterly repulsed, but no, this inspires Sarah to reciprocate his romantic feelings. This horrendous piece of nerd wish fulfilment does in the film's defence go wrong very quickly, leading to a climactic sequence that is tense and strange. It is almost as if the film might be able to pull it out of the bag here, but right at the last minute the film produces a completely bonkers twist in which we find it is not Sarah’s dream that is coming true, it’s Jeremy’s. And that is the final nail in the coffin for this really being a film where Sarah is treated with any respect as a character.
This would be bad enough, if that were not immediately followed only seconds later by an even weirder final twist that is supposed, I guess, to be poignant and tragic, but which in fact just renders the whole story of this movie pointless. Normally I’d have no qualms about spoiling it, but were I to spoil it, it would make no difference whatsoever, since this final moment is not so much out of left field as coming from a completely different field half a mile away where they’re not even playing the same sport. And it’s not a ball, it’s a water balloon full of poop. A good twist (or even a middling one) depends on there being enough for you to be able to work it out from the evidence given. That is off the table here. It's baffling why anyone would think it a good idea to sabotage their own film to such an extent as effectively to say, “Joke’s on you, you just wasted the last ninety-five minutes of your life on a film where nothing at all counted for anything!” but here we are. And what seemed like a film that could have been beautiful and frightening and thought provoking just turns out in the final analysis to be an hour and a half of someone mansplaining Philip K Dick to you.