The Barrens (2012)
I have a hard time nailing down filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman. Bousman cut his directorial teeth with the SAW franchise (he directed parts two-four and co-wrote part two) and I must say they were pretty fun. Not great flicks, but entertaining. Then came REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA. I know I’m gonna take some shit for this, but REPO! was pretty damn unwatchable. I hated every second of it and am still shocked it has reached cult status (but then again, I also think THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is unwatchable). Then I was really looking forward to Bousman’s 11-11-11 (he wrote and directed this one) and was disappointed. As Deggsy pointed out in his review (check it out here), 11-11-11 was a fucking mess of a film. It was unfocused and all over the place.
This brings us to THE BARRENS, Bousman’s foray into ‘creature flick’ territory. Kind of. The creature in question here is the legendary Jersey Devil and I for one was friggin’ stoked to see this film. I grew up in South Jersey and when younger went camping in supposed ‘Jersey Devil territory’ with my dad and brother. Plus, Bigfoot has been done to death; let’s give the old Jersey boy a shot!! Want me to cut to the chase? Oh what the hell. THE BARRENS wasn’t the movie I was expecting but it was a well made film. I’d even go so far to say that this is Bousman’s best film to date. The main problem here is that THE BARRENS has an identity crisis. Part of the time it wants to be a psychological horror film and other times it wants to be a creature flick. Unfortunately these two elements clash and ultimately make the film feel clunky and unfocused. Even worse; the twists in the film were more choreographed than the musical numbers in GLEE. I overall enjoyed THE BARRENS but felt it could’ve been so much more.
The film opens as all creature flicks open — with a couple walking through the woods getting attacked by an unseen thing. After the credits we join the Vineyard family as they’re getting ready to go on a weekend camping trip into the Pine Barrens. The father, Richard (Stephen Moyer) wants his family to experience the same fun and closeness he experienced as a young kid camping with his dad (he’s also planning on scattering his dad’s ashes in the woods). Besides Richard there’s his wife Cynthia (Mia Kirshner), who gets my vote for being the most understanding and laid back wife ever; his teenage daughter Sadie (Allie MacDonald); and his young son Danny (Peter DaCunha). As they’re getting into the car, Cynthia notices that Richard looks under the weather and Richard points out he’s probably just getting the cold that the rest of the family just got over.
Cynthia is Sadie’s stepmom so there’s tension between them and there’s also clues here and there that their marriage may be going through a rough patch. The ride out to the camp site is a little tense and Richard seems to overreact to the most mundane things and his anger seems a little out of place. Then they come across a half-dead deer crossing the road with it’s guts hanging out. When Richard gets out of the car to investigate he hears and senses something in the woods watching him.
As the movie unfolds, we get little (and sometimes obvious) clues as to what we think is going on and then Bousman pulls the rug out from under us and gives us new info that makes us re-think the entire plot. I started thinking that the real creature here may not be the Jersey Devil but instead is a Red Herring!!
Their first night at the camp grounds they are in the common area with tons of other campers. Richard gets pissed off and wants a more rustic experience. All the while Cynthia (and the viewer) can see Richard getting worse and worse. His temper is getting out of control and his fever is getting worse. Yet Cynthia helps pack up the camping gear and follows Richard deeper into the Pine Barrens away from everyone else (I think they actually travel three to five miles in!!). At this point it was hard to believe that Cynthia would follow her obviously sick and deteriorating hubby into the woods. No wife is that supportive. There’s a big mid-story revelation that makes you re-think the entire plot, but it all seemed so convenient. Is it really the “big reveal” or just another red herring?
Now I don’t wanna give the impression that I wasn’t enjoying THE BARRENS. The acting is great from the entire cast. Moyer does a terrific job subtly portraying a man getting sicker and sicker and Kirshner holds her own as a the devoted wife who wants to support her hubby but gets to the point where she begins to question everything. The film moves along at a nice pace and Bousman does a nice job building the suspense and tension, mainly in the first half of the film. Moyer keeps having Jersey Devil sightings and we’re not really clear if he does indeed actually see it or if those are just fever dreams and hallucinations from his fever-riddled brain. Or maybe he really is seeing the Jersey Devil. Or maybe there’s something else going on here all together.
THE BARRENS is a well made film and overall I recommend it based on that alone. The first half of the plot is crisp and focused, but as it moves along things become very choreographed and you know exactly what’s going on and you know exactly how it’s gonna end. That was a little disappointing. And then the film starts going through it’s identity crisis of being a psychological thriller one moment and then a creature flick the next. If you’re in the right frame of mind I think you’ll dig this one. As a result of not knowing what it wants to be, then climax of THE BARRENS felt watered down instead of having the impact it was going for.
In the end THE BARRENS isn’t a straight up creature flick (like I wanted) and it’s not a straight up psychological flick (like it wants us to believe). It’s a Creaturlogical flick. It’ll either work for ya or fall flat on it’s face. Bousman is a talented writer and director, but as I said in the beginning of this review, I just have a hard time nailing him down. I recommend this one with an asterisk.
Oh yeah I almost forgot. Wanna know the two best things here? First off, there’s a fantastic compound fracture that will have you clutching your own leg!! But more impressive is that people’s cell phones actually work deep in the Pine Barrens!! No shit; I’m not kidding. That was a nice touch.
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Plot: 3 out of 5 stars
Gore: 3 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer