Allure, the debut film of photographer-turned-director siblings Carlos and Jason Sanchez, is an altogether cool puzzle piece, and the puzzle is one movie and TV watchers have been attempting to solve for over a decade now: what's eating Evan Rachel Wood? In the opening scene, we find this spiky, unconventional actress - a frostbitten Kristen Bell, a Sharon Stone origin story - abruptly terminating a bad Craigslist hook-up, sending her poor sod of a correspondent fleeing with tail between his legs; in the second, we witness her Laura oversharing with Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), the piano-playing teenage daughter of the well-to-do woman she cleans for; in the third, we watch as Laura is (it proves characteristically) bolshy with her father (Denis O'Hare), who gave her this job in the first place. The threads connecting these sequences, and those that follow, are interpersonal tension and fraught attraction: the puzzle takes greater shape when Eva rows with her mother and storms out of the family home to take refuge with Laura, a heroine who is already clearly on edge. In its leftfield, standoffish way, the film is a response to the calls for change within the industry some - not least Wood herself - have been making. You want greater female representation on screen? Here's a movie that has troubled women wherever you look.
The result qualifies as an oddity, if far from a complete success: a thriller that operates at an ultra-low frequency, that sets out to be no more than quietly, persistently stressful. The Sanchez boys get almost all their effects from the sight of two young women making credibly poor decisions, and then doubling down on them, as young people are sometimes wont to do; it hardly soothes our fraying nerves that the camera keeps shooting everybody through glass, as if these were bugs to be studied - or crushed. The actors bring these people to some kind of life: O'Hare is as rocksolid as he almost always is, and you sense Wood seizing a moment, or the opportunity to try something more challenging than the porcelain-doll role she currently occupies on TV's Westworld. There are, too, points where the autumnal anonymity of the directors' framing comes close to reproducing that ominous Gregory Crewdson style. Yet it quickly becomes clear that something's missing - that this is a crumpled, damaged movie about crumpled, damaged people, and there's not all that much those of us looking on from the cheap seats can do to fix it. As the initial crackle of intrigue subsides, Allure starts to seem banal and faintly TV movie-ish in its listing of everyday abuses: it sorely needed more heart or a dash of pulpy verve to justify its place on the big screen, and instead it's got Wood, a jagged ice sliver who keeps slipping through our fingers. This is one of those movies that is so deterministically glum and chilly that what it needs most of all is a hug - but it's not a film that invites easy embrace, and one suspects it might even squirm noncommittally out of that. No touching.
Allure opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.