Onus [The Feature Film]

Certificate: 18
Running time: 97 mins
Director: George Clarke
Starring: Robert Render, Anthony Boyle, Vivian Jamison, Caroline Burns Cooke
Genre: Thriller
Country: Northern Ireland

Fans of independent horror and thriller cinema who have been following Knifed in Venice for any length of time will have, more likely than not, come across at least one review from Belfast’s very own one-man movie machine George Clarke.  Back in April of last year we were fortunate enough to review a short film directed by Clarke called Onus [review available here].  Not only was the film a departure from what was considered Clarke’s oeuvre but it signified a changing of gear that the director hammered home with his following instalment Splash Area [review available here].  For what it’s worth, before we get started I would urge readers to check out the review of the Onus short film, as it looks in-depth at the critical 44 minutes which Clarke then uses as a jumping off point to plot the rest of the movie around.

When teenager Kieran wakes in the middle of nowhere chained to his school counsellor, each with a pistol duct taped to their other hand, the two men are thrust into a mind game that demands you kill or be killed.  Adding to this death roll of the dice (filmed in beautiful Norway) the film continues one month later as the repercussions of that tense, dark day unfolds promising to swallow up everyone in its path. 

Nine months ago I said that Onus was a masterclass in visual storytelling so it was with serious reservations that I came to the feature film.  There’s a certain balance and beauty to the short, it showcases a depth of cinematic knowledge and an enthusiasm that’s almost impossible to replicate.  Adding an hour to an already 99% perfect short was a risk, done incorrectly and it could well feel like a five act piece squeezed into a three act genre.  This, when it occurs, is devastating.  Just look at Quentin Tarantino’s brutally bloated Blaxploitation meets Spaghetti Western atrocity Django Unchained if you don’t believe me.  The problem of pacing killed what could have been an otherwise entertaining piece of fluff.  Amazingly, Clarke manages to sidestep this narrative landmine and instead delivers a movie of two very distinctive halves that sits alongside From Dusk Till Dawn and Psycho as genre defying cinema.  The first chapter, a taut psychological thriller, the second an emotionally gut-wrenching drama about loss with a peppering of mystery for good measure.  Visually, the film is very much two parts also.  Yes, both locations (Norway and Northern Ireland) are framed as isolated and rich in naturalistic tones but it’s more than that.  Norway is vast, expansive, wild while the film seems to have shrunk in the second chapter boxing the performers into their mise-en-scene creating a psychological claustrophobia that rivals the conceptual menace of earlier in the film.

It’s going to be difficult to review performances without giving too much away.  If you’ve watched the short and are yet to watch the feature it’s very much a case of Schrodinger’s movie with both leads being simultaneously dead and alive until you’ve seen it.  With that in mind, here goes nothing.

Robert Render (Bob Andrews) is a strong, confident and somewhat alluring character actor.  He was brilliant in The Last Light, his role in Splash Area was devastatingly small but otherwise brilliant and in Onus he delivers a complex and cerebral performance.  He’s incredibly watchable and has a presence that draws the eye in whenever he’s on screen.  Anthony Boyle (Kieran) is a real find, he’s honest and entertaining with an extremely emotive way about him.  It takes a strong screen performer to be able to carry their fifty percent of the load when sharing a screen with Render and Boyle has two massive things on his side, youth and talent.  Back in Belfast, Vivian Jamison (Joan) is the grieving family member of (either Bob or Kieran) desperate to not only understand why it happened but also how it happened, not to mention who was responsible.  What Render and Boyle do for thematic tension in the first 44 minutes Jamison does for emotional content for the rest of the movie.  Her grief is etched across her face without it feeling overly Hallmark and her relationship with Liz (played by Caroline Burns Cooke) drives the tension as the mystery of who killed Bob/Kieran? moves towards more enclosed spaces, more claustrophobia, more tension, and menace, and death.  The pairing of Jamison and Cooke is great, they are shackled together too (though not literally) and have complimentary performance styles that not only suit the emotionally evolved feel of the latter half but brings out the best in each other.

The two chapters that make up Onus enhance one another by being so very different from one another.  As a feature it’s tonally rich, diversely paced and visually gripping.  Clarke’s eye has been powerful from day one and ever since Battle of the Bone it has been an eye that has been creatively strong beyond his financial reach.  Onus is a psychological thriller like few others, full of heart and pain while at the same time offering that teeth shatteringly, blood spitting bite that has audience members forgetting to breathe for large portions of the movie.  An astonishingly well constructed and powerful thriller from Northern Ireland’s only independent auteur.


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