Derelict, My Life In Horror

Jan 10, 2024
Derelict MY LIFE IN HORROR.jpg

My Life In Horror: Derelict

For the audience, there is breathless horror, a sense of spiritual decay that deepens as the film progresses, and more and more of its intertwining plots become apparent. But also a troubling sense of uncertainty by its conclusion: 

Mainstream cinema has a problem with emotion. For a medium that’s so ready to pontificate on the primacy and importance of sincere emotion, it generally demands those responses occur only within tightly defined parameters (often with regards to whatever blandishment will garner the greatest box-office return). 

Cinema is scared of sincere emotion. It’s scared of portraying it, scared of cultivating it, scared of evoking it. Moments of sincerity, emotional resonance, are marked as “too much,” “alienating,” “not what audiences want.” 

As such, the culture of cinema has been gradually eroded, audiences conditioned to mistake aesthetic association for genuine resonance: 

“There’s Iron Man. I know what this means; I identify with that! This is enjoyment. This is what cinema is for.” 

“Oh, there’s Optimus Prime! It doesn’t matter what content -or lack thereof- he’s operating in! The associative nostalgia-hit on my brain feels good, therefore this is a good film!” 

As for the evocation of emotions considered negative, forget it. Oh, cinema will pretend to indulge that, on occasion. Sometimes, once in a blue moon, you’ll even get a piece that strays outside of prescribed parameters, that manages an ounce of sincerity. 

But they are rare. The vast, vast majority of what hits our cinema screens and streaming services doesn’t want us to feel anything. It’s an aesthetic exercise; spoon-feeding us the familiar, the bland and accessible without any genuine content or nourishment for our souls (arguably the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is this phenomena enshrined). 

This is why works such as Jonathon Zaurin’s Derelict are so essential. 

Invited by Jonathon himself to view a pre-release cut of the film, I had no idea what I would experience. No clue as to content or style or the film’s project. I went in totally naked, without context, and that…that was simultaneously a mistake and essential to the experience. 

Derelict is sincere film-making in an old-school -yet contemporary- vein: It not only wants to evoke response in its audience, it demands it of them. As with its core characters, the film doesn’t allow its audience the benefit of relief; there are no easy answers or pat distractions from the incredibly real, powerfully complex social and moral issues it explores. 

This is a study of violence and hereditary misery; densely class-conscious, evocative of the films of Ken Loach and Martin McDonagh (not to mention Cronenberg’s dalliances with similar subjects in the mid-2000s), it explores how violence proliferates in and pervades certain strata of our societies, how that violence is allowed, apologised for and normalised. The violence inherent to family structures, that becomes culturally enshrined within certain sub-strata of our societies the polite-and-contented would rather not acknowledge or speak of. Would, in fact, rather not exist at all. 

The pervasive ethos of corruption, of lives touched and tainted by one another, is evident from the first frame. Following multiple, intertwining story arcs, the film has almost zero exposition; the relationships it explores are defined by how the characters interact and engage. From the first instance, it’s clear that here is damage, here is despair. The characters not only exhibit such at every turn, but the film itself drips and pulses with it. There’s a particular style of cinematography here that’s distinctly European in flavour; that makes post-modern Suburbia into a Cretian labyrinth, a dark and faintly nightmarish space of dirty concrete, claustrophobic streets, abandoned places. The film has a particular fascination with space and environment; how the dereliction thereof informs and echoes the souls of those who inhabit -and infest- them (and, vice-versa, how those spaces become expressions of our tainted interior lives).

Few spaces, if any, are comfortable: Even family homesteads are corrupted and compromised (sometimes from within, sometimes by external invasion, but 

always with the abiding sense that such things are inevitable, threads converging no matter what the characters do or intend). Darkness, bleakness, are part and parcel of the film’s ethos; it is as much a study in despair and the impotence of our intentions as it is of violence: 

Whilst some of the core cast survive -and even transcend- their circumstances, they are universally defeated in what they want from their existence. From a revenge plot that is unravelled by mere circumstance to a gay romance that, given the cultural circumstances in which it occurs, can never be allowed for, the over-arching thread is of life undoing human design, often through no fault of our own (or rather, faults that are inalienable; cultivated within us by contexts and forces we have no control over): 

Despite the violence he is coerced into inflicting, Matt is ultimately a victim of his cultural circumstances: 

Born into an underclass family in a British suburban setting, he is sublimely unknown to himself when the film begins; a quiet, shy and sweetly identifiable boy, whose implied gay romance might be the means of him finding himself and transcending those circumstances. 

Only, the world in which he occurs has other plans. He is not part of that world, in a manner that speaks profoundly to a queer audience, especially those of us born and raised in similar circumstances, nor does he want to be (a confluence of superb writing, acting and direction makes this clear without any need for contrived conflict or cumbersome exposition). Matt is out of place, out of time; a splinter in the belly of this sickly, diseased setting that he has nothing but loathing for (and prophetic fear of). It’s clear that he wants better, for his family, for himself. 

But reality has other, crueller plans. 

Matt’s family dynamic is one of the most fascinating and complex elements of the film; even his queerness is unspoken, and may be unknown even to him (context is all important; he exhibits numerous subtle characteristics of a gay man without descending into pantomime or stereotype). He operates in a cultural setting where being gay is the ultimate sin; not in a religious sense, but with regards to certain enshrined assumptions of masculinity: To be gay is to be a waste of manhood, essentially a lost child, exiled and outcast. Whilst it’s never actively discussed in the film, it’s very clear from context that Matt’s -aggressively heterosexual, toxically masculine- brother, Ewan, can be forgiven for any sin (including acts of violence that see him incarcerated). Ewan is endlessly apologised for by their bed-ridden Mother, despite Matt’s protests at his presence (fascinatingly, Matt is a Cassandrine figure, too; he prophecies the disasters Ewan will bring down on the household with his return, but is ignored, shouted down by any he might appeal to. In that, the film serves as a post-modern reiteration of Greek tragedy). 

Matt’s tragedy, and the sin for which the film itself passes some measure of judgement upon him, is weakness: 

He lacks the strength and fortitude to do what he knows is right, to save himself and all concerned from the tragedies he knows will come about as a result of his brother’s influence. Simultaneously, he is also powerless from the first instance: His “weakness” and malleability are products of his birth and circumstances; factors he has no more control over than he might the whims of sadistic gods.

By contrast, Ewan is an almost elemental force in the narrative; an entity of pure, narcissistic corruption that cannot allow his brother to be other than he is; to aspire to better. Every interaction between  them is one of dominance and oppression: From the moment he occurs, Ewan stakes his claim, marks his territory and makes it plain that he owns Matt, body and soul. Certain subtle factors of the cinematography seem to suggest that he’s also aware of Matt’s burgeoning homosexuality, and takes it upon himself to “purge” his brother of what he considers to be a “disease.”

Almost everything I have described here is subtext and inference; Derelict is suffused with those elements, demanding that its audience sit and engage on an almost obsessive level in order to appreciate them. It isn’t interested in clear moral binaries, Disney-cartoon notions of justice and villainy. Matt is coerced into numerous hideous acts by his brother, the culmination of which is a brutal symbolic exorcism of his own homosexuality, inspired by -what I personally interpret as- a self-justifying, manipulative lie by his brother. 

In a wider sense, the film serves as a commentary on certain corrosive, distorted assumptions of masculinity: In Matt and Ewan’s myopic cultural bracket, this is what MEN do, this is how MEN act, those prescriptions universally consisting of petty acts of hostility, aggression and violence. Ewan in particular becomes fascinating in this regard, as his perpetual insistence on reinforcing and imposing his apparent “masculinity” suggests a certain lack of absolutism: From his language, his actions, the stories he tells, one can infer the story of a man tortured to the point of self-mutilation by his own uncertainties, expressing those conflicts through the proxy of his own brother. 

This is also a beautiful example of the film’s multifarious subtlety: As a gay man, this is what I perceive. But the film never makes this narrative overt in dialogue or in any way absolute: Everything occurs through context clues and -often minute- implications that require a level of audience engagement many contemporaries do not or actively refute. 

Obviously, my personal response to this narrative -as a gay man born in not dissimilar social strata- was powerful and unsettling, to a degree (when I say certain scenes in the film were difficult to watch, I mean that as the most profound endorsement). To know these meditations are occurring in the medium is extremely heartening, especially when they do so with this level of sincerity. 

The other principle plot thread of Derelict, by contrast, explores how the violence innate to Matt and Ewan’s world affects those outside of it: The corrupting nature of that violence and how it comes to infect the lives of others. 

Abigail, ostensibly born and raised beyond that culture, can’t escape it, in a manner not dissimilar to Matt: Her Dad is the vector by which that violence enters her life. Like Matt, he knows that Ewan is the emblem of that violence, a manifestation of it, yet, like Matt, makes the profound mistake of allowing him back into his life (despite similarly Cassandrine misgivings). The resultant violence is what sets Abigail on a self-destructive spiral of obsession, a Dantean path that leads to family rupture, abandonment and a descent into depths of disgrace she previously couldn’t imagine. 

The principle difference between her and Matt’s stories is not necessarily the potential of redemption (such is arguably open to Matt from the get-go; all he has to do is have the strength to reject his brother and the narratives he imposes, but he doesn’t). Abigail, by contrast, is forced by circumstances to change, to drag herself out of that same quagmire or be consumed by it. In her case, it’s not a matter of strength or fortitude; she exhibits both in quantity, but that strength, design, passion, simply don’t matter here. This reality will defeat them all, no matter what’s sacrificed or endured, and the ability to remove oneself from the corrupting spiral is what determines survival. She endures things in the film that are squalid and brutal, all in the pursuit of what she considers a wider goal, but which are all symptoms of the cultural sickness she’s been infected by (the same that ultimately consumes Matt). 

Again, corrupt and grotesque expressions of masculinity are prominent here, explored from the perspective of a woman who, echoing Matt as a putative queer man, has been their object and victim her entire life. In that, her Dad is far from blameless, despite her desire to avenge him: He’s not only the door through which that traditional violence enters her life, he’s also a by-product of it, as her Father, as a Father. The parallels drawn between Matt and Abigail are numerous: 

Both are subjected to sexual violence from powerfully masculine forces, both are fundamentally undermined in their essential identities by those forces. Both are enjoined to repudiate their damaged sense of self through acts of extreme violence, that ultimately prove self-destructive. 

The poetry the film weaves between the two characters is sublime and bleakly beautiful, redolent of a Phillip Larkin piece (“Man hands down misery to man…”). 

Derelict is not, by any means, a standard or simple revenge thriller. Rather, it serves as a lampoon and inversion of that sub-genre’s tropes and questionable ideology. There’s no catharsis or resolution through violence here, no catharsis or resolution at all, technically: Only painful self-transformation -or self-destruction- as means of escape. 

For the audience, there is breathless horror, a sense of spiritual decay that deepens as the film progresses, and more and more of its intertwining plots become apparent. But also a troubling sense of uncertainty by its conclusion: 

No easy answers, no tight, clean conclusion. No letting the audience walk away and forget. Responsibility for resolution is thus left in our laps, the film lingering long after its run-time is up and the final credits have rolled.

A unique experience, for which I thank Jonathon heartily and offer my sincere hopes that it reaches the audiences it deserves. 

George Daniel Lea,

06-01-2024

Derelict

Abigail is a socially isolated, angry young woman who is struggling to come to terms with the brutal murder of her father some years prior. When she learns that one of her father’s murderers is about to be released from prison, Abi sets herself on a path of revenge. Matt is a young man whose life gets turned upside down by the return of his brother Ewan. The destinies of these lost souls crosses in ways that will tragically shape their lives.

Director: Jonathan Zaurin
Writers: Kat Ellinger, Michael Mackenzie , Todd Rodgers
Stars: Suzanne Fulton, Michael Coombes, Pete Bird

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