Onus [Chapter One]

Certificate: 18
Running time: 44 mins
Director: George Clarke
Starring: Robert Render, Anthony Boyle, Kenneth Thompson
Genre: Thriller
Country: Northern Ireland

Kieran wakes outside.  He doesn’t know how he got there, where ‘there’ is or why he’s chained to his counsellor.  He doesn’t know why both men have a handgun duct taped to their other hand but soon they’re left in no uncertainty as to what must occur next for either of them to stand a chance of survival.  One must kill the other.

As premises go Onus has that idea of high concept refined down to bare essentials.  The horror/thriller genre has, over the past two decades, been heavily populated with high concept ideas that have been executed with a degree of minimalism to varying levels of success (as an equation to can be measured as ‘End result = concept / sequel numerical value').  Yellow Fever Productions have now been running strong for five years making Onus not just a special kind of landmark in the productive life of the company but also, possibly, it’s most mainstream offering to date.

Visually the film is Clarke’s strongest to date.  The colour palette is hardened yet natural and has a cold organic danger to it that puts the protagonists Kieran & Mr. Andrews (Anthony Boyle and Robert Render) in nowhere, nowhere we’re overly familiar with anyway.  The cinematography tells most of the story too, which is almost a necessity when dealing with the short film but is also a sure sign of a director growing as a storyteller.  There have been several independent film’s on Knifed in Venice in recent years that have demonstrated an understanding of this, Rage and House Call to name but two, but there have been few films that have been this visually linguistic when it comes to exposition.  The aesthetic is incredibly rich, and the locations add so much to the film’s £80 budget – with Clarke filming in Northern Ireland and Norway.  In the past Clarke’s editing ability has always been a plus for his films.  The Last Light was certainly his best example of editing to create atmosphere but it’s the 'lack there of' in Onus that’s the films most distinctive trait.  Several of the key sequences on screen a lingered upon, one in particular with Render smoking a cigarette in a darkened cabin while goats eat outside.  Everything about this sequence sings 'a film maker has cut the last of his milk teeth'.  It says that he knows how to compose a shot and instinctively knows how long to allow it to unfold.  It’s a beautiful sequence, it calls forth from the past connotations of the final moments of The Searchers yet it lingers like Leone.  It’s the beginning of Once Upon A Time in the West, it’s the train carriage scene from A Fistful of Dynamite.  It’s powerful, rich and most importantly organic.  It doesn’t feel like Clarke is channelling these cinematic moments, it just looks as wonderful as they do.  The score delivers as much to the general feel of the film as the cinematography as it is at time determined to impose menace, at others thoughtful and even sorrowful.  It’s a great marriage between image and audio and one that is born out of experience.

Robert Render is a quality performer.  He gave a powerful solo performance in The Last Light and showcased a unique ability to carry a feature, in Onus we are gifted a different side of him.  One that is equally as enjoyable but so very different.  He’s an anchoring force in Onus, his screen presence is controlled and his delivery measured.  It is this that is used to push the narrative train along and in many ways opens to door for Boyle to step-up and perform.  Where Render is controlled and generous, Boyle is emotive, sympathetic yet commanding.  It’s a really impressive performance from someone so young and surely must lead to an acting career.  The two men shine on screen together, it’s an incredibly well balanced set of performances that many would suggest is reminiscent of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (The Defiant Ones) but giving the genre they’re operating in and the Asian influences, Ray Milland and Roosevelt Grier (The Thing with Two Heads) or Pam Grier and Margaret Markov (Black Mama, White Mama) might be a more appropriate fit.  Surely the biggest compliment possible, right?

Onus is a short film.  A supremely well made short film, but Onus II is planned to be a feature.  It almost feels as though Onus is an exciting sneak peak of what could come with the right budget, it’s Robert Rodriguez’s home-movie starring Bruce Willis that convinced Frank Miller that Sin City was a great idea.  It is without doubt Clarke’s most accessible filmic offering to date, but it’s also his most beautiful.  A masterclass in visual storytelling, and most amazingly only the tip of the iceberg.

Donate [here] to help Yellow Fever Productions make Onus II.

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