Illustrating the banality of evil in an impressively controlled and sometimes darkly humorous fashion, “Michael” takes a coolly nonjudgmental, non-psychological approach to a disturbing topic, spending five months in the life of a 30-ish pedophile who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement. Although it begins in medias res, Austrian writer-director Markus Schleinzer’s feature debut slowly reels viewers in with Michael Fuith’s strong lead performance, a creepy accumulation of ordinary detail and suspenseful twists. Although the pic is certainly not for all tastes, arthouse distribs of challenging material will want to give it a go.
Bland-looking Michael (Fuith, superb) is a buttoned-down insurance exec who keeps a spotless suburban home and at one point receives a promotion at work. He drinks with male pals and appears attractive to women. Yet he’s also forcing sexual relations on his captive, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger, convincingly vulnerable), compounding the abuse by telling the child his parents don’t want him.
In showing the interactions between man and boy, Schleinzer (working with co-director Katrin Resetarits) provocatively questions what constitutes a monster, with scenes that echo typical family dynamics, making abnormality look surprisingly normal. The pre-title sequence, in which Michael arrives at home with groceries, prepares dinner for Wolfgang and then shares washing-up duties, may give some viewers the impression that they’re watching a father-son story (press notes in Cannes provided only a coy synopsis).
Businesslike at work, attentive to his sister when necessary, seeming like just one of the guys on a ski trip, but in fact a predator on the prowl at a miniature-car racetrack packed to the rafters with young boys, Michael definitely has a monstrous side. Thankfully, the abuse scenes with Wolfgang are implied rather than shown.
Schleinzer, whose previous film experience was as a casting director for Austrian helmers including Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl and Jessica Hausner, appears to share their subversive style. Often his images have a double meaning that takes a few moments to sink in; a scene in which Michael and Wolfgang tidy his quarters and assemble a bunk bed seems almost companionable, but when followed by the sequence at the racetrack, Michael’s intentions become subtly but chillingly clear.
It’s difficult to describe the plot twists without spoiling them; suffice to say they rise organically from the tightly structured narrative. Within the pro tech package, crisp production design and editing make the most of locked doors, shuttered windows and repeated washing up. The final use of ambient music provokes some uneasy laughs.