There are questions that we ask ourselves, hypothetical ones that can result in lurid, violent fantasies and nightmares. What would you do to protect the ones you love? What if they were taken from you? Killed?
What if it was something worse than that?
Hollywood films are filled with stories that show people’s answer to these questions, though they’re frequently either glamorized and action-movie’d to death without any real emotion or heart. Australian writer/director/producer Steven Kastrissios has his own answer to the question, and it’s an unapologetic, brutal response. His first film, The Horseman, tells the story of Christian (Peter Marshall), a divorced father with an average life, and average job and a generally average existence. He’s balding, a little paunchy and mostly unremarkable. Until the day his daughter Jesse (Hannah Levien) is found dead — with alcohol, cocaine, and heroin in her blood, and semen from four different men inside of her.
That’s the first five minutes. It gets harsher from there.
Christian is completely destroyed by grief, full of questions he’s not sure he wants the answers to. One day, he’s sent a copy of a low-rent porn tape that shows a dazed, barely conscious Jesse being gangbanged by a group of passionless, faceless men who use and discard her. The film spends the rest of its time telling of Peter’s grisly quest to find and kill the perpetrators. He determinedly tracks each one down, tortures them until they tell him another name, then kills them and moves on to the next person on the list. Along the way, he picks up a hitchhiker, Alice (Caroline Marohasy), a young girl trying to find her way both literally and figuratively, and the pair form the quiet, tentative bond of two loners whose lives have been derailed by fate and who each is seeking something. Alice, however, has no idea what Christian is actually doing when he disappears, believing he’s a traveling businessman.
That’s it. That’s the story, completely encapsulated. And it is completely and totally engrossing. The Horseman is unquestionably one of the more emotionally arresting and genuinely heartbreaking films I’ve seen this year. Peter Marshall’s performance as Christian is one of those almost uncomfortably human depictions, full of tragedy and soul-baring and intelligence. His devastation at what happens to his daughter is total, and the quest is the only thing that keeps him moving. The moments spent otherwise consist of either staring into space with shining, wet eyes, or cutting himself to divert the pain. It’s the type of role that could easily be overacted, but in his hands it feels right. It feels like the way someone should feel in those awful circumstances. The gentle and confused performance of Marohasy is similarly remarkable, a soft, quiet young girl who trusts more easily than she probably should, but who also serves as a temporary emotional respite for Christian.
As for the killings themselves, they’re horrific. It’s a jarring, discordant contrast to the scenes with Christian and Alice — brutal and bloody and completely de-romanticized. His fights with the perpetrators are brutal, uncoordinated and clumsy affairs — there are no action heroes here, no trained warriors. Just regular guys trapped in corners who lash out and scratch and bite in order to either escape or capture. His torture techniques are nasty, but again, not something I enjoyed watching. This isn’t Final Destination — there’s no giggly anticipation as you watch. He’s not a gleeful innovator, trying to think up fun new ways to torture — he’s trying to find what will hurt the most, right away, because he’s got a schedule to keep.
There’s no sense of redemption or victory as you watch them, because Christian gains nothing from them either — the more he learns about that night, the more miserable he becomes, and each encounter serves no purpose other than to distract him from his nightmares. It’s visceral, grim, unpleasant and almost grotesque stuff, made all the more affecting by how not glamorous or Hollywoodized it is. Unlike Liam Neeson in Taken, Christian has no special skills (other than he’s good with basic tools) — he’s just driven by his own disconsolate fury.
Unfortunately, it’s an imperfect film. For 80 minutes, I absolutely loved it. It was one of the most authentic films I’ve seen recently, and when I thought it was winding down, I was deeply satisfied, if not more than a bit unsettled. Unfortunately, Kastrissios’s ending kind of shits the bed, turning into a good vs. evil showdown, with a belatedly introduced character who simply screams BAD GUY. Up until then, Christian’s victims were bastards, yes. Unsympathetic and vile, to be sure. But they were just people. Each one had their own demons, or had become numb to their deeds (and one exceptional one felt genuine, wracking remorse, making it the most interesting encounter). Yet for some reason Kastrissios felt the need to tack on a more action movie-ish ending with a big showdown and unnecessary drama. It’s an utter shame, because it was such an impressive, authentic-feeling film, that is mired down by an unneeded 15 minute finale, replete with torture and daring escapes. The ending doesn’t contribute anything to the story, doesn’t provide any sense of finality, even. It creates a villain where none was needed — part of what made the story interesting was the averageness of the men Christian finds. Suddenly demonizing them seemed contrary to the purpose of the picture.
But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it. The Horseman is a small, unknown film that will likely never garner any kind of mass appeal in the U.S. — it was released in very limited markets last fall. Even in Australia it’s hardly a blockbuster — it won best film and best director at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival, but that’s the extent of its accolades. Regardless, it’s a strangely beautiful film — it’s just marred by an excessive, bloated ending. Yet The Horseman is worth enduring that ending for the sake of seeing some amazing performances, solid directing and a film that despite its harshness and unrelenting violence, feels uniquely human.
TK writes about music and movies for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.