What if the Invisible Man relocated to northern Canada and became a compelling combination of a crime film and a family drama? That’s The Unseen.
Let’s bitch it out…
The Unseen feels like a Canadian genre pick, and I mean that in the best of ways. There’s an unhurried approach to this first feature film by veteran special make-up effects artist Geoff Redknap: a refusal to divulge character backstories or plot in an exposition dump. This draws things out, giving characters time to breathe and plots to unfurl. It’s not a completely successful approach (more on that below), but it does help the film stand out from its genre brethren south of the border.
Redknap, who wrote and directed the film, opens The Unseen with reclusive protagonist Bob Langmore (Rectify‘s Aden Young) reluctantly heading into work at a lumber mill. The environment is frigid and stark and Bob wears layers over most of his body. Pausing before he heads inside to a job he clearly detests, Bob stares longingly at a family reuniting across the road. These first scenes play out silently and in long takes, ensuring that we have time to take in Bob’s isolation and the film’s somber tone is firmly established; it is clear that Bob’s sacrifices have cost him.
Both the trailer and the film’s description make it clear that Bob is literally disappearing. Redknap updates the monster movie trope by making the process excruciatingly painful; when parts of Bob’s anatomy fades from view, they are still there, but the process is agonizing. It has also turned him into a social pariah: he’s moved North to avoid human contact and the majority of his money is sent back to his (surprisingly understanding) ex-wife Darlene (Camille Sullivan) to cover College for their teenage daughter Eva (wide-eyed Julia Sarah Stone). The family drama kicks the narrative into gear as Eva becomes increasingly unruly and, on his way south for a visit – the first in eight years – Bob crashes his truck thanks to his affliction. This puts Bob at the mercy of local animal trafficker and amateur drug kingpin Crisby (shifty Ben Cotton) who offers him a deal: carry product to the city and back in exchange for the costs of the repairs to Bob’s truck. Obviously only bad things can come from such a “generous” offer…
There’s a lot more to the film, but the central conflicts are all firmly established in the film’s first act. Unfortunately Redknap lays out his cards a little too clearly; most audiences will be able to guess major plot developments well in advance. This leaves long stretches of The Unseen feeling mildly anticlimactic as we wait for the characters to catch up to where we know they will go.
The most unexpected development, occurring just past the film’s half way point, also happens to be The Unseen‘s most energetic set-piece. Following the abduction of a key character, Bob goes into detective mode in a desperate bid to save his family. When he finally arrives at the truth, the resulting scene is exceedingly tense and unnerving, thanks in large part to a genuine uncertainty about the outcome. By this time it has been well established that Bob, a former NHL player who left the league in disgrace following a violent brawl, has a problem with his temper, but his invisibility doesn’t make him impervious to injuries. In a series of claustrophobic steadicam shots, Bob careens wildly through a store, down a flight of stairs and into a dungeon brimming with danger. It’s a great scene, notable also for finally revealing the state of Bob’s appearance under his many layers of bulky clothes in a seamless marriage of practical makeup effects and CGI.
Alas this scene proves to be the high point of the film, leaving Bob and Eva’s climactic return north feeling muted and a little too drawn out. The final encounter with Crisby winds up being so pat and perfunctory that it almost plays out like a denial of generic conventions. Rather than succumb to American-style explosions and elaborate revenge schemes, The Unseen revels in its low-key Canadian naturalism, favouring the family drama payoff instead. It’s one final unexpected element in a confident feature debut, even if not all of the elements 100% work.
Bottom Line: For his first feature, Geoff Redknap has crafted a solid family drama with a dash of science-fiction. While the film does have plot and pacing issues, The Unseen excels in its use of atmosphere and its seamless blend of practical and CGI special effects.
The Unseen has one additional Fantasia screening on July 22 at 12:45pm. Check out the trailer below