Brit writer-director Simon Rumley made three well-reviewed but little-seen initial features before gaining wider notice with his first foray into quasi-horror terrain: 2006’s “The Living and the Dead,” a striking and harrowing tale of a schizophrenic man-child disastrously left to care for a sick elderly parent. He’s stayed in that territory since, his subsequent features and omnibus contributions related to horror in unconventional ways, linked by an intense interest in various forms of mental instability.
That recipe extends to “Fashionista,” his third successive effort shot in Austin, Texas. This twisty, compelling psychological study in thriller guise bears the closing dedication “Inspired by the films of Nicolas Roeg” — another filmmaker drawn toward scrambling chronology and other disorienting techniques.
There’s a sense of creeping disorder in the lives of 30-ish married couple April (Amanda Fuller, who was in Rumley’s “Red White & Blue”) and Eric (Ethan Embry). As the narrative advances by fits and starts, some of that chaos is easily explained — their apartment is overwhelmed by hoarders’ clothing piles because, well, it’s simply as-yet-unsorted stock for the used-clothing store they own and live directly behind. But other aspects stay murky much longer, as we gradually learn to separate reality from the fears that plague needy, temperamental, highly insecure April’s mind.
She’s paranoid about losing the seemingly devoted Eric, particularly once he proposes going away for a bit to open a second store in Dallas, training pretty young assistant Sherry (Alexandria DeBerry) to eventually run it alone. April’s panic that the two are really plotting to “run away together” may be irrational; then again, conspicuous clues seem to suggest some infidelity is going on, perhaps involving yet another employee (Jemma Evans as Theresa).
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There’s tension enough in sussing out this principal intrigue, which increasingly imperils April’s marriage. Adding more mystery is a separate strand in which April gets into a strange, manipulative Svengali-like relationship with wealthy Randall (Eric Balfour). Does this take place before or after the “present-tense” tensions with Eric? We don’t sort that out for quite some time — and it takes even longer to figure out the meaning of enigmatic, fragmentary scenes in which another young woman (Alex Essoe) recovers in a psychiatric facility. The latter are shot by DP Milton Kam in washed-out colors, a stark contrast to the vivid palette elsewhere, culminating in a near-hallucinogenic riot of visual information as April finally tips over the edge of mental breakdown.
For all the montages of our heroine frantically trying on different clothes — a fetish that eventually becomes all too sexualized — Rumley’s script doesn’t fully articulate the basic connection between April’s inner self-doubt and her compulsion toward outer appearance. This titular device ultimately seems both underdeveloped and oversimplified, given the enormous range of women’s-body-image issues it gestures toward. But that’s no fault of Fuller’s fiercely dedicated performance. And so much of “Fashionista” is complicated and arresting that the few ways in which it falls short — thematically, psychologically or in narrative cohesion — feel like a fair trade for such ambitious enterprise.
A heavily tatted-up Embry etches a sympathetic, flawed figure, while Balfour is aptly sinister and seductive. The few supporting characters are also well-cast and drawn, including Devin Bonnee as a homeless man whom April takes a faintly maternal interest in, though she may need his help more than vice versa.
While not everyone will enjoy this jigsaw puzzle of suspense and neurosis, Rumley’s assembly is as aesthetically adventurous as usual. The assertive use of pre-existing music beyond Richard Chester’s original score gets jump-started by a startling opening-credits sequence in which every billed name is soundtracked by a wildly disparate song’s needle-drop snippet.