Review: Acolytes

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Acolytes is the tale of three teenagers who discover the buried body of a murdered girl in the woods and become involved in a dangerous game against a serial killer and a rapist. It’s also a cautionary tale of how a film can go astray when the filmmakers indulge in their own fancies rather than focus on serving the story.

Absolutely nothing happens in the first two minutes of this film; it’s just a montage of shots of mountains, houses and birds. In the making-of cinematographer Mark Pugh justifies the existence of these shots as being proof that a HD camera can capture images just as beautifully as film can in the right hands. I agree wholeheartedly, but I wish he’d make his point in his own time. Two minutes doesn’t sound like much time in a feature film, but consider that Finding Nemo takes you from wonder to laughter to fear to sorrow and makes you care about the death of a character in its opening scene which lasts just four minutes. The disparity of comparing Finding Nemo with a thriller like Acolytes aside, this film wastes a lot of time.

Once the film does get around to telling its story we’re introduced to three very interesting teens: James (Joshua Payne) and Chasely (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) are the boyfriend/girlfriend while Mark (Sebastian Gregory) is the third wheel in their friendship group. After Mark unwittingly stumbles upon a man burying a body in the forest the trio eventually aim decide that they will catch the serial killer themselves after being unable to anonymously tell the police of their discovery. (You just have to disregard the fact that this is an Australian film where we have Crime Stoppers –a hotline set up which allows people to easily report crimes anonymously.) The progression of the story at this point is painful. There’s a mantra for screenwriters to encourage succinct writing that says: “get into the scene as late as you can and get out of the scene as early as you can.” Instead Acolyte writers Shayne Armstrong and Shane Krause have adopted the mantra of: “get into the scene early and get out early.” There’s plenty of time spent leading up to Mark’s discovery of the killer burying a body in the woods, but once Mark ducks behind a tree to hide the scene comes to an abrupt end. It’s a shame as there’s a tense moment as Mark hides and hopes that the killer doesn’t realise he’s not alone. This scene could have easily been milked for entertainment, but instead it becomes a disappointment. Again and again the same thing happens; in a later scene the three teens have are pursued by a vehicle and they try to make a desperate run for it. The driver toys with them before knocking Mark down. He’s beaten, has his eyebrow ring ripped out and then – just as you’re really getting into it – it’s the next scene and everything is OK. Like everyone else on this film, editor Simon Martin seems to be indulging in experimenting while completely forsaking the narrative.

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But then, about forty-five minutes in something happens. It’s the second turning point of the film – and it’s a big one. It’s so masterfully done that from this point on I became so invested in the story and the characters and I was willing to forgive any of crap the film threw at me. The rest of the story isn’t too hard to predict, but it remains incredibly exciting all the same. And through it all the stellar cast help to hold things together. Mark, Chasely and James are reckless and stupid – but are somehow likeable in an unlikeable way. Joshua Payne as James is particularly good. There’s something dangerous and unpredictable about him. The villains of the film – Gary Parker (Michael Dorman) and Ian Wright (Joel Edgerton) – are brilliant. Both are menacing, but distinct. The film even goes so far as to make vehicles the third villain of this film; the first murder we see is a girl being chased down and hit by a car. From there the killers in this film become identifiable by the cars they drive and the appearance of a vehicle can be a signal of danger. The only criticism I can make on the acting is that some of the ADR performances are a bit dull. Just to quickly explain: ADR is the process of recording dialogue in a studio instead of using the dialogue recorded on-set. The pitfalls of this is that poor ADR can sound flat due to both the lifeless acoustics of the studio and the fact that it’s difficult for an actor to re-perform convincingly in a studio space. There were many dolly shots, crane shots, Steadicam shots, wide-angle shots and other such shots where it’s difficult to position a microphone. So as a result you get moments where there’s a noticeable drop in the audio and acting quality.

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The film is constantly wrestling with itself as it sways between telling a thrilling story and bending to the will of the filmmakers trying new tricks. There’s an absolutely technically amazing moment where we watch Chasley sit watching Mark and James dig up the grave as she surfs through the music on her mp3 player. The camera moves at a beautiful snail’s pace all the while keeping perfect focus and framing. We hear only what Chasley hears through her headphones; the first ten seconds of a song plays – then Chasley pauses and changes the track. Technically, it’s an incredible bit of filmmaking; technically. But it’s a total wank. While all involved will have something very nice to add to their show reels, moments like these do nothing to support the characters or the story. And as brilliant as that second turning point is, the script still leaves much to be desired. Its worst feature is its trick of constantly alluding to the fact that Mark and James were raped as children. It’s not foreshadowing or building intrigue – it’s just hinting at back-story the writer never fully reveals. There are at least three flashbacks to the rape but no new information is ever revealed or built upon.

I’m being fastidious at this point but even the DVD extras have their failings. There are a number of special features including a deleted scenes and a bog-standard documentary (“Acolytes is a film about…” and “my character is…”) – but it’s the DVD commentary that deserves special mention. Rather than being the usual format where the filmmakers sit down, watch the film and discuss their experiences and observations, this DVD commentary is an edited collection of recordings. On the plus side there’s a wide range of people from all across the production that you get to hear from. But it’s been edited so tightly that there’s no breathing room between sentences; it’s a constant stream of sound. Plus the sync isn’t quite right so often the voices will comment on a shot that’s long since past. On top of that there’s often only tenuous links between what each person is talking about. It’s far removed from the casual conversation of usual commentaries and I suppose they get points for trying something different, but while there is plenty of content here the way it’s presented is disconcerting.

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Disconcerting is also a good description of the experience of watching the film itself – both in the way it can be an engaging thriller and in the frustrating way the filmmakers will distract you by trying to show you how good at smoothly panning the camera for two minutes. Yes, eventually the film succeeds in establishing a tense mood that endures throughout the rest of the film, but in weighing up the good elements of the story versus the crap you have to put up with I wouldn’t really recommend Acolytes too highly.

Acolytes is out now on DVD.