Friday, March 15, 2013

This Lady Will Do Whatever It Takes to Save Your Soul

The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh (2012)
Director: Rodrigo Gudiño
Seen via: Nevermore Film Fest
Rating: 5 / 10

It's a reality that most of us will have to face at some point: having a parent die and leave you with an entire house-full of stuff. All the things they've collected, stored, and valued over the years will be junk for you to sell or donate. More overwhelming than the task of moving an entire life of possessions is sorting memories from trash, and choosing the items which will be your last few reminders of the person you've lost. This is the dilemma that Leon (Aaron Poole) faces at the beginning of The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh, when his estranged mother passes away. Thankfully he's an antiques dealer, and selling old stuff is what he enjoys. But his childhood was not a happy one. He dreads unearthing memories of abuse and facing the residual guilt he still harbors for deserting his mother and his religion many years ago. To complicate things, his mother isn't quite finished with him either, despite the fact that she's dead.

Things take a turn toward the supernatural when it appears that Leon's mom is trying to come back to the grave to rekindle his faith . Is it actually Leon's dead mother, or is it all in his head? While by now this sort of ambiguity is a well-worn ghost story trope, it's handled pretty well here and doesn't often feel obtrusive. I'm always wary of preachiness when a film throws a nonreligious character into a scenario involving malevolent spirits from heaven (or hell). This one deftly avoids becoming didactic by calling into question the reality of its supernatural elements. Also, kudos to the filmmakers for picking one outcome in the end and sticking to it. I'm tired of movies trying to have it both ways by ending once, then changing their mind with one final twist just before the credits roll.

If there is one aspect that shines above all others in The Last Will..., it's the sinister atmosphere. The entire film takes place within Leon's mother's house, which is filled to the brim with creepy old religious detritus. From cracked angel statues to ancient potted plants to weird needlepoint stitchings of eerie religous proverbs, everything in the house gives off a miasma of unease that echoes Leon's own feelings as he sorts through the junk.

It's a shame that the entire film rests on the shoulders of Aaron Poole in his role as Leon. He does a fine job, but he's essentially the only person we see throughout the entire film (unless you count Ghost Mom). Other than his leftover angst toward his mother, there aren't a lot of defining character traits to make him endearing. The only interactions he has with anyone else are through phone calls, which don't do much for the already plodding pace of the film. Even at a mere 82 minutes, there is frequent plot drag. Even the most intriguing sets can't carry a film on their own. When the action does flare up, it's undermined by the fact that there's nothing keeping Leon from just leaving the house. (Other than that we need him there for the story to continue, of course.)

The Last Will... isn't by any measure a bad film. It's a slow tale of religious horror that takes its time brooding over the question of how good intent can lead to evil deeds. Unfortunately, it fails to give us a character we can really empathize with once things begin to go bad. To make a comparison with another recent film, picture The Innkeepers with a more sophisticated message, and its characters' quirkiness replaced by brooding and navel gazing. I'm interested to see what writer/director Rodriguo Gudiño (who's also the editor of Rue Morgue magazine) does next. He's clearly put a lot of thought into the inner workings of his story, and has a solid grasp of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Hopefully in the future he'll be able to integrate these into a narrative that doesn't feel so cold and distant.

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