Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE BLAZING WORLD
Not Yet Rated, 101 minutes
Directed by: Carlson Young
With its mashup of classical and contemporary, Carlson Young’s confident, perceptive directorial debut THE BLAZING WORLD is a feminine, neon-infused horror fairy tale. Inspired by “Margaret Cavendish and Other Dreams,” and built out from her 12 minute short from 2018, the story centers on a young woman who must confront the trauma of losing her sister at a young age. Her visionary, surrealist spin on “Alice Through The Looking Glass” blends hyper-stylized homages to Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Winding Refn and Tarsem into its delightful dementia whist edging close to the delirium in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA.
When Margaret (Josie Fink) was young, she saw her twin sister Lizzie (Lillie Fink) drown in their pool and a mysterious older gentleman (a perfectly cast Udo Kier) beckoning her to his swirling inter-dimensional portal. She’s paralyzed with fear – devastating trauma she’s carried into her adulthood. Absconding to college in the city hasn’t helped erase the past either. The oppressive depression Margaret (now played by Young) haphazardly shoves beneath the surface plagues her, manifesting in jarring visions of her dead sister and the creepy dude. She seeks a television psychic (Liz Mikel) for help, who suggests people can exist on a metaphysical plane, something Margaret takes to heart hoping her sister could be there.
Margaret is called back home to help sort through her possessions as her parents are selling her childhood home – ground zero of her internalized terror, guilt and anxiety. Mom (Vinessa Shaw) has grown repressed, but also co-dependent on her surviving daughter. Her forlorn father (Dermot Mulroney) fritters his days away separated from family in his den doing anything to drown out his feelings – drinking, practicing putting indoors and listening to loud music. But just as she’s settling back into familiar familial patterns, she’s forced to confront her trauma head-on when she enters the portal with the goal of freeing her dead sister, challenged with a triple layer quest that will simultaneously set herself free.
Metaphors and allusions that play like surrealist waking nightmares visually commingle and overlap with their fluidity. Young and screenwriter Pierce Brown’s archetypal representations of Margaret’s mother and father, whose characteristics morph into more pronounced affectations in her dreamlike visions, provide extra color commentary to the thematic subtext. The home, a typical place of sanctuary for a family, becomes a repellent representation of Margaret’s tortured and pained psyche. Young ascribes a distinct aesthetic to each of the rooms, texturizing and contextualizing each setting as her character attempts to surmount her grief.
The assured auteur also makes sure to incorporate a helpful sense of hopefulness that mirrors Margaret’s conflict, battling the darkness to get through to the light. Rumi’s quote “the wound is the entry point for the light,” and the phrase “the only way out is through” are more than just clichés we’ve seen regurgitated on Instagram that creep into this narrative’s text. They are resounding sentiments tucked away in the background, but act as guiding forces for the character.
Young, Brown and production designer Rodney Becker tie in sharp symbolism with iconography featuring insects and lions in this young woman’s mindscape. Shane F. Kelly’s cinematography is superlative, adding saturated and intense color to Margaret’s deliriously trippy wonderland. Composer Isom Innis’s synth score also earns top marks, producing a mesmerizing, dichotomous divide with Tchaikovsky pieces from “The Nutcracker” that punctuate the soundscape of Margaret’s world.
Though a few scenes run a little too long, slightly allowing the beautifully atmospheric somnolence to dissipate, the uncanny reality in which Young and company created feels absolutely dreamy.
THE BLAZING WORLD premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 31.