Adam (Riley Egan) is a painter struggling to find inspiration. His meek demeanor means he can’t even muster up three measly words to Maria (Kate Mansi), the woman across the way, whom he fancies. All that changes when Adam meets the new tenant of the ramshackle apartment complex, Hector (Max Decker). Hector, a low-level drug dealer, takes a shine to the artist’s quiet ways and enlists him to help on a mission.
All Adam needs to do is drive to a house on the outskirts of town. In exchange, Hector will give Adam enough to pay off the rest of the newly upped rent price and still have some money leftover. Driving home afterward, they see someone in the middle of the road and slam on the brakes to avoid hitting her. They exit the vehicle to see who or what they almost hit, only to discover nothing at all.
Back at Adam’s apartment, he envisions a beautiful blonde lady, only to discover she is real. This woman (Elle Evans) is silent but unleashes Adam’s passions in an almost unnatural way. These new paintings gain the attention of Valerie (Jennie Fahn), the owner of the art gallery where Maria works. Adam is finally earning the adulation he has long sought, but there is a price to all the fame. The mysterious muse kills anyone she believes gets in the way of Adam’s success, or their relationship.
It would seem Muse has all the makings of a great fantastical drama. An original premise, eerie cinematography, and a parallel between mental illness and the little lies we tell ourselves to make it through each day that hints at the philosophical ambitions of its script. On paper, it is a resounding success.
“This woman is silent but unleashes Adam’s passions in an almost unnatural way…”
However, translating a screenplay to a finished film is not an exact science and things can go wrong. Writer-director John Burr’s first problem is Riley Egan. Egan barely registers as an onscreen presence, blending into the background scenery with such ease it’s alarming. If he were only that way for the first 30 minutes, roughly, that would be fine. In one of their first scenes together, Adam asks Hector for his sketchbook back but asks so timidly that it seems to have barely bothered the painter at all. This works to establish the character’s low self-confidence.
However, Egan acts that way the entire time. Near the end of the movie, he intentionally leads two people into his apartment for the woman to kill. At this point in the film, he is meant to be assured and purposeful, with this serving as a turn to the dark side. But his line readings are barely above a stage whisper; not that projecting would help the flat, monotone delivery whatsoever.
Elle Evans conveys much more nuance and human characteristics without a single line of dialogue. Her body language seems natural, and she effortlessly conveys the more supernatural aspects of her character. Mansi does not have much to do aside from standing around and reacting to the other characters. However, she is fine in the role, with the climax finally allowing her to flex some real acting muscles.
It is, however, Lou Ferringo Jr. as the rival artist that stands out. His character of Jason is a cocky jerk whose quick rise to the top of the art scene in town has inflated his ego. His reaction to being ousted by this relative newcomer proves to be the only authentic emotions Muse is capable of conjuring up; and it isn’t due to the tepid, thin characterizations for everyone.
“…art driven by passion and acting out due to being driven mad.”
The movie’s lack of an interesting lead is not its only issue though. The script wants it both ways- having the deadly lady, known as a Leannán Sí, be both real, giving the movie a dark fable bent, and a figment of Adam’s mind, a symptom of his uninspired artwork driving him mad. If Burr explored this in-depth with an ambiguous resolution, that could have worked. Instead, Valerie brings up the notion that Adam, not Leannán Sí did all those terrible things and projected it onto a nonexisting entity to avoid feelings of guilt. A fight between Adam and Jason a few minutes prior is edited in a way that suggests this is where things are heading.
But mere moments after that conversation, it is proven beyond a shadow of the doubt that the Celtic legends of Leannán Sí are true. Then the ending happens, and it won’t be spoiled here, but make note that it renders the entire movie moot.
Muse has a lot it wants to say about the transmutable aspects of art driven by passion and acting out due to being driven mad. But its execution of those themes and ideas is lackluster in most respects. An ineffectual leading man makes it impossible to care for the main character’s plight, it doesn’t help that the characters are all one note, the script can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be, and the ending absolves anyone from any consequences.
Muse (2018) Directed by John Burr. Written by John Burr. Starring Riley Egan, Elle Evans, Kate Mansi, Max Decker, Lou Ferringo Jr., Jennie Fahn.
4 Gummi Bears (out of 10 stars)