A solo backpacker seeking tranquility in “The Interior” of British Columbia gets something very different in Trevor Juras’ arresting, minimalist debut feature. This initially droll, then increasingly nightmarish tale has atmosphere to spare along with some good jolts. Still, viewers are likely to be divided: Horror fans expecting some (or any) explanatory payoff to the mysterious goings-on here will likely find the pic an exasperating tease, while those willing to go with the enigmatic flow will appreciate the writer-director’s evident talent. In commercial terms, it’s likely to fall into the no man’s land between genre and arthouse fare, though favorable fantasy-fest notice should attract potential converts to home formats.
The opening reel gives us a few deadpan scenes from the daily life of James (Patrick McFadden), a Toronto twentysomething who does not appear to have found his niche in work, leisure, love or art — definitely not the latter, if the brief Yuletide rap we see him bewilderingly commit to tape in a recording studio is any indication. We meet him as he talks about some troubling physical symptoms with a doctor (Delphine Roussel) who takes them seriously, but also feels compelled to point out that he’s been obliviously holding a joint in his hand during their entire interview.
Between this appointment and James receiving the results (presumably horrific though unspecified) of his brain scan, he deliberately provokes his boss (Andrew Hayes) into firing him from an advertising agency, and gets hired (by supervisors Ryan Austin and Lucas Mailing) to work at an air-duct-cleaning company. After his bad news, he informs semi-girlfriend Cindy (Shaina Silver-Baird) that he “just wants the opposite of this,” and is thus leaving for the countryside, perhaps forever … in a couple of hours. Her response indicates this is only the latest, crowning example of myriad ways in which he’s been a lousy b.f.
At the 24-minute mark, the title card finally arrives, and we find a now-bearded James duly alone in the wilderness. Whether his medical diagnosis is terminal or not, he clearly is done with human society for the time being. However, it seems other beings are just getting started with him — perhaps in retaliation for his briefly letting himself into an unoccupied cabin, perhaps not. In any case, his intended meditative idyll becomes more and more unsettled as someone, something or several of the above begin pranking him. He hears noises at night; his belongings are repeatedly messed with; sinister presences grow bolder and more malevolent. After a certain juncture, it becomes unclear whether James (or we) can tell the difference between his waking experiences and possible dreams/hallucinations. But some intrusions seem all too frighteningly real.
Just what is going on here is anyone’s guess, though it’s a good bet the “interior” of the title is mental as well as geographic. (Pic was actually shot on Salt Spring Island, located between mainland British Columbia and Vancouver Island.) But however cryptic his narrative agenda, there’s no doubting that Juras is fully in control of technique and tone. There is ample beauty as well as stark fear in d.p. Othello J. Ubalde’s striking forest imagery, especially the unusually sharp nocturnal photography. Also heightening a paranoid, off-kilter mood is the frequent, vivid use of slo-mo during some particularly graceless action, the irony stretched further by Chopin piano excerpts (played by Adam Osinski) on the soundtrack.
Juras’ judicious editing, Tomas Jirku’s spare original score and McFadden’s impressively committed performance are the other primary elements in this terse, alarming haiku of a movie. Most viewers are likely to suffer some degree of frustration at the fadeout, but the distinctive dread Juras has conjured to that point will hopefully linger longer.