Writer/director Mickey Reece holds the title of the Low-Budget King of Oklahoma Cinema, having shot and completed at least two features every year since 2008. As a result, many of his films feel unfinished or rough but nonetheless convey a raw talent, a sense that his life's work will eventually culminate in one perfect piece of cinema someday.
His newest film — Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart — is a melodrama heavily inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata, and though it may not be that culmination I mentioned, it's certainly a stretched limb in that direction. What sets this film apart from Reece's former work is his collaboration with Strike's very obvious breakout star, Mary Buss, a performer exuding the manic intensity of a Gena Rowlands, in command of every scene she leads.
Buss plays a Dianne Herbert, a cabaret singer whose latest husband has just passed. When Dianne's daughter Madeline Middleston (Audrey LeCrone) buys and attempts to renovate an old hotel with her husband David (Jacob Snovel), Madeline sends for her estranged mother in a bid to mend their relationship. Sound familiar? The premise is almost a direct lift from Bergman's film, complete with a disabled sister, Bailey, played by Elise Langer. But originality is overvalued these days anyway, and Reece is reimagining the story with his own flavor, albeit some of it turning up sour.
In the vein of Yorgos Lanthimos and the Brechtian surrealists who came before him, Reece plays with deadpan and stilted deliveries. Both Madeline and David recite their lines like naive robots. This is a style of acting I'm still not totally convinced that Reece understands, as its power comes from the actor's physical minutiae — nearly imperceptible facial movements, glances, turns of the head — and a firm grasp of the subtext of every seemingly banal line of dialogue. Buss and Kato Buss (Mary's husband?), who plays Father Black, seem to be the only two actors in the company who demonstrate knowledge of subtext, and thank god they've got a scene together.
Dianne stands at the top of a dark stairwell, her face in closeup, looking a whole lot like a cross between Sarah Paulson in American Horror Story: Hotel and Essie Davis in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. In the deep black at the bottom of the stairs stands Father Black (apt name!). It's a freaky shot with just the bare minimum of his outline glimmering. He's telling Dianne that he's got some kind of message for her, something she's not ready to hear, so her face contorts in a mix of revulsion and fear — he's essentially holding up a mirror to her faults and telling her all she's done wrong.
She could just slam the door on his face and leave him in the inky black, but she's also attracted to what hurts her, which is evident from how many husbands she's had. This scene is only a blip's length, but this is the one where I sat at attention; Reece paired with experienced actors channeling icky, evil vibes is what I want to see.
The film is at its best when it's most unhinged, like when Dianne begins seeing a yeti-like shadow monster lurking in the corners of the room, or when Dianne and Madeline are magically transported into a black-box suspended purgatory, striking subdued glamour poses that reek of madness. When Reece blocks his scenes like a theater director, some serious shades of R.W. Fassbinder's Chinese Roulette bleed through, and it's totally satisfying and electric. Reece isn't particularly great with words, but he's becoming expert at moving and exploiting bodies in this film, which balances out some of the wackier story elements, like poor Bailey, who dons a gauze turban in the shape of the Bride of Frankenstein's sculpted hair and who, in one dinner scene, slowly dips her head into her soup while everyone attempts to ignore her.
But it should be noted that this is only one of quite a few films at this year's Fantastic Fest that focus on women devolving into madness or hysterics. Amanda Kramer's Ladyworld, Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria, Danishka Esterhazy's Level 16, and Daniel Goldhaber's Cam are also standouts in the psychotic women sub-genre, which seems to be making a resurgence, and why the hell not?
The past few years of cinema have become a referendum on world politics. And though Reece's movie seems on the surface more of an intimate, personal chamber film than a statement on global concerns, it's just one of a family of films cropping up that, as a whole, says a lot about the time in which it was born. It's not surprising that Bergman's film premiered the year of the largest women's march of that time and that Reece's would coincide with an even larger social movement. It turns out that reveling in women's pain can be cathartic, and, here, Mary Buss proves a suitable conduit for the catharsis.