The Dead Center ***
Dir: Billy Senese. With: Shane Carruth, Poorna Jagannathan, Jeremy Childs, Bill Feehely. 92 mins. Cert: 18
The cult that gathered around Shane Carruth – the polymath writer-director-performer who dreamt up the equally brilliant and baffling Primer and Upstream Colour – might well want to reconvene for this effectively low-key chiller in which their godhead takes top billing, while ceding creative duties to the Nashville-based Billy Senese.
With its twin-track storytelling, Senese’s film owes less to Carruth’s filmography than to upmarket TV fare like True Detective and the recent Unbelievable. In one narrative line, a conflicted, corner-cutting psych ward doctor (Carruth) breaches the headspace of a hulking patient (Jeremy Childs) who revived in the morgue after an apparently successful suicide attempt; in the other, a medical examiner (Bill Feehely, bearing a useful resemblance to CSI’s William Petersen) heads into the field to investigate how this John Doe got on the slab, and how he got up off it.
Sensing any answer might test credibility, Senese troubles to establish a detailed, lived-in medical backdrop, staffed by overstretched pros who, while doing their best for some deeply traumatised individuals, realise both they and their charges are at the mercy of forces they cannot control.
Granted, there’s not much within this universe one might identify as truly original. The psych ward’s long corridors – whether deathly empty or overrun with chaos; no happy or even manageable medium here – are a horror staple; John Doe’s gift/curse inverts that of John Coffey, the life-giving lifer of Stephen King’s The Green Mile; and his fascination with spirals is one of several lifts from post-millennial J-horror.
What’s crucial is how Senese and cinematographer Andy Duensing film these elements: patiently, attentively, with a rare feel for space and ambient atmosphere, and a reluctance to turn over easy explanations that invites tantalising metaphorical readings, and counts as recognisably Carruthian.
As a standalone performer, Carruth is very solid, and in fact smartly cast as an authority figure who proves at least as inscrutable-to-difficult as those in his care. Yet the attention from doctors and camera alike makes this an even better showcase for the previously unnoticed Childs, a bug-eyed, upright presence who could pass for Michael Shannon’s older brother, and whose agonised primal screams are going to sound bloodcurdling coming through the right cinema sound system.
The Dead Center is now playing in selected cinemas, ahead of its DVD release on October 21.