It’s winter and a boy is unintentionally home alone, but what follows is more in the realm of mortal peril than wacky hijinks in “Knuckleball.” This admirably lean thriller, in which a 12-year-old dumped at grandpa’s during his parents’ vacation ends up fighting for life, doesn’t necessarily hold up to close scrutiny in terms of credibility. Yet while you’re watching, helmer Michael Peterson effectively earns suspension of disbelief with stark atmospherics, solid performances and a persuasive escalation of panic. The Canadian feature is opening on three U.S. screens simultaneous with its digital-formats release.
Henry (Luca Villacis) is by all appearances a typical kid, glued to his video games, not especially happy about being dropped off at a barely remembered relative’s isolated farmhouse while mom (Kathleen Munroe) and dad (Chenier Hundal) head south. It’s even less welcome because grandfather Jacob (Michael Ironside) is a taciturn sort not on good terms with his daughter. But the young family doesn’t seem to have another option — it’s strongly suggested the parents’ “alone time” trip is a last-ditch effort to save their discordant marriage.
So Henry is deposited in the widower’s rural home on a cheerless frozen landscape, where Jacob immediately puts him to work with unfamiliar chores, and entertainment options are zilch. (To circumvent the usual modern-thriller problem of omnipresent telecommunications, Henry soon realizes he forgot his charger, so his electronic devices are quickly rendered useless.)
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Grandpa is an intimidating type, and while in his gruff way he tries to be friendly with his grandson, he’s by contrast alarmingly brutal toward Dixon (Munro Chambers), a youthful neighbor of ambiguous standing whom Jacob says is “almost like family,” yet treats more like a combination servant and out-of-favor pet. For his part, Dixon seems nice enough, trying to insinuate himself with the visiting boy. But appearances can deceive.
Overnight, things take an unexpected turn that leaves Henry by himself, without a working phone, many miles from the nearest town in the dead of a blizzardy Alberta winter. He turns to Dixon for help — a move that around the film’s halfway point shifts its mood from queasy pathos to escalating terror.
There’s a lot to retroactively pick apart in Peterson and Kevin Cooke’s screenplay. The relationship between Jacob and Dixon, which would explain a great deal, remains murky. The secret of what’s inside grandpa’s ominously locked barn turns out to be rather more than this story’s already laden agenda really needs. Henry’s resourcefulness under extreme duress strains belief even within the conventions of the thriller genre. And it’s never convincing that his yuppified parents would leave him with a grandparent with whom his own mother has had a highly problematic past.
Yet none of that much matters from the start of a game-changing 10-minute scene at Dixon’s house, during which Henry becomes acutely aware of the danger he’s in through the series of attacks, dodges and detours that fill the remaining runtime. These sequences are precisely handled by Peterson, which is particularly impressive given that nearly all his prior work was comedic. An excellent score by Michelle Osis and David Arcus further ratchets up the tension.
Chambers (“Turbo Kid,” which also featured Ironside) is vividly unhinged, Villacis convincing despite his character’s implausible aspects (Henry is as hardwired for survival as a Navy SEAL), while Ironside lends sufficient gravity of presence to a figure insufficiently sketched in the writing.
There’s a clean, crisp feel to Jon Thomas’ widescreen photography and Rob Grant’s editing that amplifies the cold menace of the setting. Myron Hyrak’s production design manages for the interiors what nature provides for the exteriors.