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Friday, February 10, 2023

‘The Unsettling’ Review – Strong Performances Can’t Save This Lackluster Feature Debut

Let’s hold a moment of silence for the presence wasted in writer and director Harry Owens’ feature debut, The Unsettling. Leading performances are admirable, but the tediously sluggish narrative is an ambiguous slog that culminates with the impact of a handkerchief slap. Owens’ themes feel indebted to Remi Weekes’ His House and Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny — aligned with African horror tales on American soil — only to abandon subplot roots in a finale stricken by amnesia. The Unsettling is an unfortunate example of contemporary “Trauma Horror” trends and slow-burn A24 genre signatures, underselling both before rolling credits on what feels like unfinished business.

Abena (Zephani Idoko) and Kwame (Bambadjan Bamba) are a Ghanaian couple who’ve just suffered the loss of their daughter. Kwame books a Los Angeles vacation thanks to his friend Charley’s gracious deal on a quaint rental somewhere in the suburbs, away from tragic reminders of their lost child. Abena attempts to purge her system of depressing thoughts like Kwame but feels a spiritual disturbance in the non-permanent residence that does not let her rest. Undeterred, Kwame invites longtime friends Vivian (Libby Munro) and Anthony (Benedikt Sebastian) for what should be a relaxing reunion over delicious African cuisine. Abena’s paranoia only worsens, and the night takes an — you guessed it — unsettling turn.

But does it honestly, with conviction, unsettle? The Unsettling tends to project moodlessness despite its haunted architecture and heartbreaking flashbacks. Owens wants to show everything and tell nothing. He operates mainly inside an overpriced yet empty Los Angeles unit where Abena dwells on visions of a rotten-skinned sea demon until the hag vanishes. Kwame jokes to Abena about the empty picture frame in their for-now dining room, supposedly ominous but more like an afterthought until necessary. Exposition is scarcer than spooky atmospheres, as Owens relies on conversational intrigue that amounts to awkward dinner party banter talking in circles.

Idoko and Bamba’s relationship is the centerpiece of The Unsettling — a husband and wife processing grief separately yet between the same “Los Angeles spacious” four walls. Idoko masters the scornful art of glaring through people as Abena endures Kwame’s insistence that she be a happy wife in their hopefully new happy life. Bamba is the charismatic smooth-talker who mixes a mean Old Fashioned and tries to smile everything away, which plays sweetly when Abena reciprocates, and dumbfoundingly when spouting the obviously wrong thing. They’re a bonded and headbutting on-screen couple — a bit better than supporting performances — but cannot save a sleepily one-note experience.

The Unsettling feels like horror filmed in a freshly renovated home before new buyers get settled — “don’t damage anything, don’t decorate, lock the doors when you’re done.” Without characterizing the surfaced corpse that tails Abena like Nanny does Anansi (the trickster god), “hauntings” become a generic costumed entity standing at the front porch like a trick ‘r treater. By rooting supernatural threats in Abena’s inescapable grief only to veer off course with a wholly different danger come climax time, you negate the devastating His House elements layered in the first two acts. Whatever Owens is trying to say about outsiders in America, international horror flavors, and guilt-thick introspective fears is almost wholly weightless thanks to an abrupt sendoff.

Excuse the low-hanging fruit, but The Unsettling just isn’t that unsettling. It’s an outline of a horror tale that’s never compelling enough to be so open-ended. Cinematographer John Honoré traps characters within confining perspectives in a cramped household, so there’s at least technical merit, yet none of that amounts to much post-credits praise. Credit performances that deserve a better project and seek out the too-close-for-comfort comparison points mentioned above. Everything here has been done before, with far cleaner and more calamitous executions.

The Unsettling is now available on VOD outlets.

The post ‘The Unsettling’ Review – Strong Performances Can’t Save This Lackluster Feature Debut appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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