Oculus Movie Review
Written by Karin Crighton
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, based on a short by Jeff Howard, Mike Flanagan, and Jeff Seidman
2013, 105 minutes, Rated R
Theatrical release on April 11th, 2014
Brenton Thwaites as Tim Russell
Karen Gillan as Kaylie Russell
Katee Sackhoff as Marie Russell
Rory Cochrane as Alan Russell
Annalise Basso as young Kaylie
Garrett Ryan as young Tim
Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is celebrating his 21st birthday with a festive release from the insane asylum. He’s been incarcerated for eleven years after shooting his father in self-defense. The story he told the police back in 2002 was that ghosts haunting the antique mirror in his father’s study had driven his parents mad and he had to kill his father to save his sister Kaylie. Years of intense therapy have convinced him it wasn’t true and he’s ready to move on with a normal life with his sister by his side. Problem is, Kaylie still believes it was ghosts. And she wants to fight back.
There’s a lot of potential in Oculus but it loses steam as soon as Kaylie (played by Karen Gillan with a near-flawless American accent) and Tim enter their unsellable childhood home. Kaylie has rigged the place with the latest in technology in an attempt to outwit the murderous mirror, and her explanation of the oculus’ legend goes on and on. While necessary, it gets a bit monotonous. Tim starts out with fire in his heart; Kaylie seems to be spiraling into madness just when he has recovered and he is frustrated and frightened for her. But Thwaites is given nothing to do with these emotions; it all feels like a lame duck attempt to sway Kaylie with words when he could easily just pick her up and carry her outside. They hug immediately upon his release at the hospital; physical or emotional distance isn’t a problem with these siblings. Instead, he sees one sign of evidence that the mirror is possessed and that central conflict goes out the window. Tim and Kaylie watch along with us as writer/director Mike Flanagan shows us what “really” happened eleven years ago as their mother goes mad, their father fades into his own mind, and they attempt to get help in vain. It’s kinda cool to watch young Tim and older Kaylie inhabit the same screen on several occasions, but that alone doesn’t help the story save remind us they’re only mirroring the past (get it – mirror?). It makes sense for the child versions of Kaylie and Tim to be so helpless, but it’s a little annoying to watch adult Kaylie and Tim fail to learn anything from their mistakes and make no real attempt to escape history repeating itself.
I wish Flanagan had dived deeper into this idea. There’s a scene in which Kaylie reminds Tim that the mirror “ate” their lab. Tim tells her she doesn’t remember that the family dog contracted parvo, and had to be put down. The brief moment where we do not know which story is true is the most interesting of Oculus. Tim tells Kaylie that mental illness runs in their family and I hoped we’d find out sooner or later that all of the previous victims were relatives; that this is all a schizophrenic dream of older Tim after he watched his father strangle his sister. It wouldn’t even matter then if they repeated history in that version, the point is that he genuinely tried to move on and failed.
But that doesn’t happen. Tim and Kaylie don’t learn anything. They don’t get the forgiveness of the parents they abandoned or killed, they don’t discover why the mirror is possessed, and they don’t explain what happens to the spirits trapped by the mirror.
The acting is solid in the absence of tight direction; Gillan and Thwaites give solid performances that perhaps lack the warmness we know them capable of. The breakout performances come from their on-screen parents Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff. Cochrane delivers a sharply funny and frighteningly dark performance as Alan. He surrenders to his own paternal failings in a heartbreaking finale that devastates. Sackhoff is achingly vulnerable and open as a wife fearing a crumbling marriage, a mother resenting her children, and a woman coping with the inevitability of age.
The editing is excellent; the jump-cuts are lighting quick and the transitions between 2002 and 2013 are perfect, but that’s the only thing moving Oculus forward.