“Braid” is something of a throwback to certain films of the ’60s and ’70s, in which “psycho chillers,” giallos, and those art-house items that critic Pauline Kael called “Come-Dressed-As-The-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties” got all tangled up in supposedly shocking tales of decadence and perversion. Here, three young women — two on the lam, one off her gourd — play twisted “games” at a isolated upstate New York manse.
People get tied up, somebody dies, and every note in the key of hysteria is struck with the insistence of a hammer on a child’s xylophone. But suspense, let alone psychological nuance or narrative development, all take a back seat to what feels like an empty, mannered series of dress-up photo opportunities. “Braid” does look great. But Mitzi Peirone’s debut feature is so void of any substance beyond the pretentiously pictorial that one suspects her real calling is in music videos or advertising.
That’s not to belittle the fact that she (and/or DP Todd Banhazi) has a sophisticated eye — which the film immediately demonstrates with a series of striking opening tableaux. If you turned off the sound and dispensed with any expectation of plot logic or momentum, “Braid” would look as appealing a fever dream as Jean Rollin’s old lesbian-vampire opuses, movies that seemed to exist in their own self-hypnotized private world.
But writer-director Peirone keeps waking us up to this film’s considerable lacks, in large part by pitching it so manically. Despite the beauty and frequent elegance of the imagery, everyone and everything appears agitatedly unbalanced from the get-go — a major tactical error in a story where we need to feel the helpless decline of collective sanity.
After a short prologue (that turns out to be a flash-forward), we meet Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay), aspiring artists turned Manhattan drug dealers whose already-cranked-up celebration of a big score is unfortunately interrupted by a visit from the NYPD. They manage to flee, albeit without the goods, which immediately puts them $83,000 in debt to their supplier.
With nowhere else to go, they land on the doorstep of childhood friend Daphne (Madeline Brewer), an heiress living improbably all alone on an expansive, gated familial estate. (The location, impressive inside and out, is Alder Manor in Yonkers, a onetime copper magnate’s home currently undergoing restoration after years of abandonment.) The plan is to find Daphne’s hidden safe, steal her loot, and scram.
But Daphne, always a bit off, is now fully mad, and insistent that her erstwhile playmates return to “the game” and its strict rules. This means she is the very exacting “Mother,” Tilda the much-disciplined “child,” and trousered Petula the visiting “doctor”-slash-“father.” One unshakable rule is “No One Leaves,” so when the interlopers attempt to escape, their status changes from “guest” to “captive.” Another, “No Outsiders Allowed,” surely bodes ill for a local police detective (Scott Cohen) when he begins to suspect the two criminal fugitives are hiding here.
It’s one thing that none of the protagonists are sympathetic here; it’s quite another that Peirone pushes performances, camera movement, and editing toward the frenetic so early and so often that there’s no chance for atmosphere or tension to build. This also means that eventual questions of reality vs. delusion (hallucinogens are also introduced to further the latter element) and “Who’s really crazy here?” carry little impact, let alone surprise.
“Braid” is full of shots of dolls, dollhouses, and other children’s toys. It’s hard to care about its full-sized participants when they, too, are treated like collectibles — Peirone seems more interested in her actors’ superfluously ever-changing dress and hairstyles than she does in giving them dimensionalized characters.
The sum impact is somewhat exasperating for being so hollow, and so fussily so. Yet again, one has to allow that in purely aesthetic terms there’s a lot to admire here, even if some visual effects (upside-down perspectives, slo-mo, accelerated speed) are over-used. All design contributions are accomplished, with often arresting use of color; Michael Gatt adds an interesting original score. If “Braid” were simply a psychedelicized, vaguely Gothic showcase for Alder Manor — which apparently can, indeed, be rented for parties — it would be a triumph. Too bad it attempts to involve actual people and narrative, neither of which this movie is remotely equipped to handle.