First-time feature director-writer-editor David Raboy certainly knows how to conjure up an atmosphere. Expanding his own short of the same title, Raboy’s elliptical psychological thriller “The Giant” gives us the story of a small Southern town beset by a killing spree, yet his real interest is in the constant changes in barometric pressure: the heaviness of the sticky, buggy Georgia air; the gathering storm that builds and builds just over the horizon for the entirety of the film. But he lays the atmosphere on so think that it threatens to suffocate everything within, and the film holds its audience at such a remove that eventually you stop trying to connect.
Containing little in the way of linear plot, “The Giant” is always willing to leave its viewers in the dark, often quite literally: much of the film (shot on 35 mm by Eric Yue) takes place in grainy darkness, and Raboy is just as likely to fill frames with smears of light and blurry figures crowding the foreground as he is with clearly defined images. Dialogue follows suit, with characters spitting out fragments of cryptic, unfinished thoughts and half-remembered reveries in low whispers. In small doses, his filmmaking style exudes confidence, and there’s something intriguing about the teasing way he leads us around the furthest edges of his story. But Raboy gives us so little to hang onto – be it an arresting image, a palpable touch of the uncanny, or a moment of real tension – that it gets harder and harder to want to follow him.
Charlotte (Odessa Young) is a 17-year-old spending one last sweltering summer in her hometown before heading off to college. Charlotte’s mother recently committed suicide, and the death hangs heavy over her as she tries to enjoy some quality time with best friend Olivia (Madelyn Cline) and the local boys hanging around the unnamed town’s run-down diners and lakes.
The story kicks into gear when Charlotte’s mysterious boyfriend Joe (Ben Schnetzer) returns to town after an unexplained absence, and his nocturnal appearances in Charlotte’s life start to draw her away from her other friends. Again and again, the two drive in circles through winding country roads, talk in circles about their own dimly articulated past, and tend to have passing encounters with young women, some of whom bearing a resemblance to Charlotte, who will later turn up murdered.
This spate of killings is, strangely, largely a background issue for the film, with all of the violence occurring safely offscreen. And even when the body count rises so high that the city imposes a curfew, the focus remains solely on Charlotte and her steady disconnection from reality. Is Charlotte in danger? Is Joe the killer? Is Charlotte? Is any of this really happening? Raboy isn’t interested in providing many direct answers, and even as the film builds to a climactic end-of-summer party, it drifts further into dreamlike abstraction.
Appearing in every scene, Young certainly manages to command the screen, though she isn’t given too many different notes to hit, with her performance confined to a narrow range of ambiguously haunted disorientation. As Olivia, Cline is responsible for providing virtually all of “The Giant’s” scant bursts of liveliness, humor and spontaneity, and the film’s pulse quickens with almost every scene she’s in. Hardly anyone else has the chance to make much of an impression.
Raboy certainly has style to spare, and as much as a viewer might be frustrated by some of his choices, there’s always a clear intention behind them. One just hopes his next film will let us in on what those intentions are.