Saturday, September 14, 2013

Love Thy Neighbor? Yeah, Right.

In Their Skin (2012)
Director: Jeremy Power Regimbal
Rating: 5 / 10
Seen via: MPI Home Video DVD

The home invasion sub-genre is one that I approach with trepidation, simply because with such a restrictive setting and a typically narrow premise, it's hard to do much that hasn't been done many times before. When a film opens with shots that seem to be lifted from Funny Games but without any sense of self-awareness, I'm wary. When it introduces troublesome class dynamics in the first act I'm even warier. In Their Skin (formerly titled Replicas) has both hurdles to overcome. Can it pull off this improbable task?

Mark and Mary Hughs (Joshua Close, Selma Blair) need to get away. The death of their daughter has left them both wracked with grief, so to prevent their marriage from dissolving and to reconnect with their young son they head out to the family vacation home. Surely time alone in a lavishly decorated house that looks to be taken from the pages of an interior design magazine will lift their spirits. The biggest challenge for the first twenty minutes of this movie is mustering up any empathy for the Hughs family. Selma Blair walks around like she's been drugged, while Josh Close's constantly bewildered expression (and his awful beard) don't do much to endear him to us either. Thank god it isn't long before the neighbors arrive and break up their moping.

Mark is awoken very early one morning by the Sakowski family - Bobby (James D'Arcy) , Jane (Rachel Miner), and their son Jared (Alex Ferris) have thoughtfully brought over some chopped wood for the Hughs' fireplace. Something is clearly off about this family though, and it's not just their odd schedule or their inability to carry on an ordinary conversation. They freely admit to lacking a car, and being isolated much of the year while the vacationers are out of town. They're just so happy to have some new friends nearby! They invite themselves over for dinner that night and the simpering Mark agrees, mostly in hopes that it'll offer him an escape from his grief-stricken wife.

Ding dong - we're here to spice up the movie!
The extent of the Sakowskis' craziness only becomes clear in the dinner scene, by far the most entertaining sequence of the film. The limits of the Hughs family's politeness are tested with a series of increasingly uncomfortable faux pas that gradually escalate. In what has up to this point been a study of dour people in a slick and sterile environment, James D'Arcy injects a liveliness and menace that reignites the film. It's really a pity that these are the bad guys, because the heroes have done nothing up to this point to earn our sympathy except act sullen. I get it, their daughter died. But do they have to be so unpleasant about it? It's unfortunate that the film unfolds so predictably from here. The film makes no secret that this family versus family conflict is going to turn violent, and when it does, there's never really any doubt as to the final outcome.

Framing the lower-class and poorly mannered Sakowskis as the enemy also introduces an uncomfortable dynamic (one that's only strengthened when we learn of their underlying motives). However entertaining the Sakowskis are, the film consistently asks us to root for the well-off good guys as their pretty family suffers through the attack. It's not an inherently flawed way to approach things, but it requires a degree of tact to pull off that this film doesn't possess. In the end the Hughs family is actually strengthened by the demise of the Sakowskis, which speaks to the film's tone-deafness. Even this year's similarly formulaic home-invasion flick The Purge made sure to balance its scales. If a Platinum Dunes/Blumhouse production can bring some self-awareness to the table, that's the minimum bar other films should have to clear. In Their Skin doesn't make it even by this generous metric.

This is essentially how they look before their house is broken into.
While there are some entertaining scenes, mostly courtesy of James D'Arcy, I wish a little more care had been put into developing the actual protagonists of the film. Watching the two families clash could have been far more entertaining if the film wasn't so one-sided. Instead we get a film that flirts with upsetting the status quo of a privileged upper-middle class family only to ultimately cement it firmly in place.

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