Offseason is undoubtedly un film de Mickey Keating, which will either fill you with excitement or dread. Opening with the great Melora Walters (give her more work!) delivering a monologue to camera before erupting into shrieks of terror, the movie seems to be purposely trying to stop us connecting with it. This is a theme in Keating’s stubbornly arthouse work, best exemplified in the execrable Psychopaths, which has more characters than ideas and is physically painful to get through. Thankfully, Offseason presents something of a departure for the enigmatic filmmaker.
Our heroine is Marie, played by horror stalwart Jocelin Donahue (The House of the Devil, Doctor Sleep), a young woman who has recently lost her mother (Walters) when she receives a call out of the blue to inform her the grave has been desecrated. After bargaining with the immovable “Bridge Man” (an unrecognizable Richard Brake) she and companion George (fellow indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg) descend upon the graveyard amid a raging storm to find the headstone sliced in half, almost as though someone has taken a massive blade to it somehow.
Marie’s mother was buried on the unnamed island where she spent much of her childhood, even though the poor woman insisted on never being brought back there, even in death. As the film opens, Ava, a screen starlet in her heyday whom Marie suspects is nearly always performing rather than risking being real with her, informs her daughter that running away from your problems isn’t an option. It seems, then, that Marie has unknowingly run towards her mother’s long-buried history with this strange place and, before too long, she and George find themselves unable to leave.
Offseason is low on exposition, but chapter breaks are inserted every few minutes to signpost where we are in the story. Chapters tend to make movies feel longer and, considering this one clocks in at just 80 minutes, it’s a particularly galling choice. Breaks like these disrupt the flow and alert us to the time passing – there’s even an epilogue, which is wholly unnecessary and reads as pretentious AF – and considering the offbeat atmosphere Keating cultivates here, it’s baffling he tries to wrongfoot us in this way. The story is barely penetrable as it is, but the chapters make it nigh-on uncrackable.
For instance, the relationship between Marie and George is never made explicitly clear. Are they lovers? Former paramours? Siblings? This is the kind of movie where the out-of-towners walk into a bar and everything stops, like in a western, but later Marie peeps in the window and everybody appears to be standing still like statues, which isn’t just highly derivative but also nonsensical. Elsewhere, the graveyard she visits is so misty it’s surprising a magic show isn’t being conducted in one of the corners, while cliché choir-style “oohs” abound on the irritating, omnipresent score.
Donahue’s performance is, as always, incredibly strong. She sells every moment, even when Offseason veers into eye-rolling territory. The setting is terrific, isolated and creepy, but its odd regional charm will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Florida, particularly with all the ominous “closed for the season” signs dotted around town. The local museum of history, for instance, is a room full of nightmares while the drawbridge separating Marie from freedom moves so slowly it creates a sense of impending dread otherwise missing from the rest of the movie.
The problem is that the question of whether everyone in town is in on it is never in doubt. Marie tells George early on that the islanders made a pact with a demon and, upon arrival, although nobody is running around making sacrifices to the devil in public or anything, it’s totally obvious something dodgy is going on. Thankfully, horror fan fave Jeremy Gardner shows up as the one helpful guy in town, his face hidden under a massive beard and jaunty seaman apparel, which leads to the film’s strongest moments, most of which take place in his dilapidated cabin.
Without spoiling anything, let’s just say the sea creature that’s been teased throughout is paid off in a big way, utterly sold by glimpses in the darkness and horrible growling and squelching sounds. A shot of the creature in the shadows of the storm clouds is very Cthulhu-esque, too. There are fantastical, folk horror elements to Offseason that jar against the tropical setting but when considered alongside the oceanic terrors that are seemingly controlling the island, they make complete sense. Succumbing, Marie is warned, would be a “fate worse than hell.”
Likewise, the Bridge Man wonders “how could someone just leave Heaven?” The island, then, represents both sides of the coin depending on perspective, which places Marie in an interesting limbo situation that can only really end one way. As a result, Offseason tends to be atmospheric rather than outright scary. But it’s more focused than much of Keating’s back catalogue, with less of the try-hard arty-farty accoutrements that have previously held him back. As a result, this might actually be his most accomplished film, even if on the surface it’s kind of a wash (pun intended).
WICKED RATING: 6/10