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Separation | Slow Atmosphere and Surprising Twists

Marriage Story.

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If you’re a horror fan, chances are you’ve heard of William Brent Bell. His disastrous 2012 found-footage gimmick The Devil Inside was nothing but an upsell to a [now defunct] website link showcased how the film’s “story” ended. The Boy (and its sequel) were also terrible but not as offensive as The Devil Inside. Bell has already made a name for himself with that 2012 film, but he’s back, with a vengeance this time around, with Separation. Aptly titled, the film tells the story of comic book artist Jeff Vahn (Rupert Friend), who is in the process of finalizing a divorce from his wife, Maggie (Mamie Gummer), and determining who will get custody of their child, Jenny (Violet McGraw). However, Maggie suddenly dies after being hit by a car, and Jenny’s custody reverts to Jeff. Maggie’s father, Paul (Brian Cox), believes Jeff had something to do with the accident, but more pressing matters are at hand as Maggie’s spirit begins to haunt Jeff and Jenny, with the latter having some spiritual “attachment” with her. And if you’ve seen Bell’s previous films, it’s no different here. Just a dull and dreary “atmospheric horror” picture with some of the worst acting of the year.

Separation'

Granted, the acting isn’t all bad here. Rupert Friend and Brian Cox manage to hold their own even when the script starts to (quite literally) shit the bed. As of late, Cox has been an expert in playing irredeemable scumbags, and he brilliantly implements the talents he developed from Succession here seamlessly. It doesn’t matter if he pretty much plays the same dickish character as in the popular HBO show; Cox is always entertaining and seems to be the only one that truly cares about whatever film role he landed in, whether good or bad. On the other hand, Friend cannot carry a lead role in any movie. That was apparent in Hitman: Agent 47, but he seems determined to do good in Separation, even if the material is rather hackneyed.

How is it hackneyed, you ask? Well, for starters, it’s not scary. There’s a fairly creepy (if you will) ghost-like figure of a puppet that bends itself à la Pennywise/It that’s somewhat effective, but it’s only featured when Jeff has nightmares. Most of the “scares” happening in the film are inside Jeff (or Jenny’s) mind, which results in a rather weightless horror film. Maggie’s reincarnated spirit is as scary looking like the nightmare fuel wooden puppet in Steve Barron’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, whilst incorporating Udo Kier’s looks from that same film. [Side note: if you want to traumatize the living hell out of children, make them watch that movie]. It’s the only type of comparison I can recall since the film is still highly vivid in my memory, and everything looks so unsettling here. That’s a good thing, though, since the film has some sort of artistic vision.

Separation Cast And Character Guide (with Ending Spoilers)

The problem is: Bell and writers Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun don’t do anything with it to make it interesting in any capacity. Maggie is just…there…and passively haunts Jeff or the babysitter, Samantha (Madeline Brewer). And the more the film progresses, the easier it is to tell how apparent it is that it has absolutely nothing of interest to say about anything. Instead, it needlessly fills its time through tedious sequences in which Jeff has “visions” of “The Darkness,” which will eventually become the inspiration for his next comic, or he’ll try (and fail) to communicate with Maggie’s spirit through an Ayahuasca trip that’s both visually drab and completely unengaging. Heck, a drug this potent merits something truly insane, embracing its dark atmosphere to the fullest extent. Yet Bell never cares about any of that and solely focuses on how the “spirit” quasi-communicates to Jenny instead. But since we don’t spend much time with her, there’s no legitimate emotional connection to her or any of what’s happening in Separation. Oh, poor Jeff, he must fight Maggie’s evil father, who wants to take Jenny away from him, while at the same time worrying about Jenny’s mental state as Maggie’s spirit takes hold of her. If you don’t find that interesting, how about developing a will-they/won’t they relationship between Jeff and Samantha? Feels so 2000’s, right?

It’s also interesting to see how truly cheap the film’s VFX is, which exacerbates, even more, its penchant for early 2000s horror made by large studios. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s script were plucked from a list of unproduced movies made around that time that the previously defunct OpenRoad studios decided to…go for it in the hopes that it would revive their business. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Once its “twist” on who murdered Maggie gets revealed, Separation never really recovers. I don’t want to give it away because curious people reading this review may want to experience it for themselves at least once in their lives. So I’ll say this: it’s wild. It’s something you half-expect if you’re paying close attention to it, but it still absolutely makes no sense in the broader context of the picture. There’s something Bell likes to do and does it well, craft some of the worst endings I’ve seen in horror. It’s either non-endings, in the case of The Devil Inside, or ludicrous “revelations” in the case of his The Boy films and Separation. Here’s some food for thought: this entire film is ludicrous.

Separation wants to impress with its “slow atmosphere” and surprising twists. Yet, its twist reveals nothing strictly but turns the film’s serious setting into an unintentional comedy, absolutely deserving of every potential Golden Raspberry it will get. If you want a unique cinematic experience and continue to observe how William Brent Bell destroyed Giallo-like endings with his horror movies whilst seeing good potential squandered in an endless cesspool of…nothing…then Separation might be for you. Otherwise, stay as far away as possible [and from The Adventures of Pinocchio too…yikes.]

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