film review – Oculus

Oculus is the story of a brother and sister who’ve had a very traumatic childhood following the purchase of an antique mirror. Eleven years later he gets out of a mental hospital and rekindles the relationship with his sister, something that doesn’t go as smoothly as he had hoped: during his treatment he’s come to believe that the events of his youth were the result of unstable family dynamics and mental illness, while she believes there’s an evil force in the mirror, something that set everything in motion. Their uneasy but tight bond is at the heart of Oculus and it’s one of the reasons it works as well as it does. Some issues keep it from greatness, though.

While the film’s premise is interesting and Oculus really tries to develop its characters, it’s a movie that in the end is very unsatisfying because of a few crucial decisions. One of those decisions is the fact that early on in the film we’re told what transpired in the siblings’ youth, which takes much of the tension away from the remainder of the movie: Oculus interweaves the present-day story with what happened eleven years ago, and while there are some genuinely terrifying and inspired moments to be found here, the fact that we know how the story that takes place in the past ends, takes much away from the films tension. Because the movie additionally is overlong, there comes a point that you want Oculus to wrap up the familiar and get to new territory. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen. Another problem is that, halfway through the movie, the two storylines begin to mirror each other too much, which makes a lot of what’s happening feel redundant. The lack of a real third act where the plot changes pace or focus and leads to surprises and a climax, results in a sudden and quite predictable ending, which has some poetry to it, but doesn’t really resonate.

That being said, this movie’s not terrible at all. One of the things Oculus does best is that it confuses its audience. Like its characters we’re never really sure what’s going, what’s real and what isn’t, which leads to an interesting directorial decision: big things can happen but are never underlined to create a sense of doubt and unease with its audience. As moviegoers we’re conditioned to be told by sound cues or lingering camera shots that something’s crucial or definitive, and Oculus uses a lack of these techniques to keep you on your toes. Unfortunately the flipside is that some occurrences aren’t as emotionally fulfilling as you’d want them to be, because they’re geared more to be cerebrally stimulating. That Oculus does manage to pull you in despite its plot flaws, is because of the quality level of acting present in the movie, especially by Annalise Basso, who plays the young version of the sister. The family dynamics ring true because of the performances, which makes the film’s characters’ fates horrifying.

In the end the film’s script is a mixed bag: it does a great job with Oculus‘ characters and premise, but in the end it fails to successfully build and maintain tension. Because of it the film overstays its welcome, despite wonderful performances and solid direction. 6/10

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