Man in the Woods, written and directed by Kevin James O’Neill, begins with a boy scout casually sitting on the dock of a small pond, his legs dangling off the side. After taking down the likeness of a pretty bird, the boy pries himself away from the idyllic setting and ventures into the woods. With nothing but a broken compass to guide him and a broken pair of lungs to slow him down, he stumbles through the trees until finding an old shack. He falls to his knees on the doorstep, using the last of his energy to throw his knuckles against the wooden door. An old man opens it and takes the boy in.
From here, the story takes a metaphysical turn, but it’s a smooth turn—your seatbelt doesn’t lock up. The question is whether or not the turn—which I’m not mentioning for the sake of spoilers, should anyone care—is enough to hold this short film up. It doesn’t have anything particularly unique or illuminating to say about the subject it tackles, even if the actors are able to sell it. Pure emotion, disconnected from any idea or sense of style, just isn’t that interesting. If it was, every movie would skip all the talky parts and go straight to where the flawed protagonist punches a mirror. He cuts his hand and gets blood everywhere, but he doesn’t care—he’s flawed, and now his hand is, too.
“With nothing but a broken compass to guide him and a broken pair of lungs to slow him down…”
But I suppose the movie is really all about the turn—a sleight of hand with the left and a tear-jerk with the right. The transformation from what the story begins as to what it ultimately becomes is gradual, easing you into it with a cinematic trick or two. That’s all well and good, but they’re tricks that come out of the same “how to be a magician” book that every 11-year-old throws into his mom’s cart when she’s not looking. It’s a short film that’s purely conceptual—an outline that ended there.
Again, James Martin Kelly, who plays the old man, is convincing in the story’s central role. If there were more to the story and characters, you get the sense he’d be able to handle it. Kaleia Giancini plays off him well as his character’s daughter. The kid, played by Brayden Benson, does a fine job, too, while we’re rattling off names.
Short films have to be a killer one-liner, as opposed to the methodical set-up/punchline of a feature. And I’d go so far to say that it’s harder to get a one-liner right. Every poorly chosen or unnecessary word sticks out, and there’s no wiggle room for conventional wisdom. Short films are the same way. They have to be tight, and they have to be hit you with something you can’t find anywhere else. Man in the Woods is fairly tight—snug, I’ll say—but it’s not laying anything new on you.
"…Pure emotion, disconnected from any idea or sense of style, just isn’t that interesting."