Ryan Oksenberg has returned to the director’s chair, my fellow cinephiles! Those who are familiar with the filmmaker’s work will rejoice, especially after his solid 2018 thriller short Damage Control (which I also reviewed). However, what he brings to the table this time is something quite removed from his previous subjects. While there are many familiar tropes and beat changes that the short film Together manages to strike (and strike often), it also transcends its genre limitations to explore new sides of life and unlife as vessels for examining trauma.
After a short cold opening following a burly mountain man (David Otten) assaulting a couple in the woods, we focus on Julia (Arielle Hader), a biohazard remediation cleaner taking care of her mother (Karin Collison). While running her business, cleaning up the guts and gore after people’s deaths, one of her regular technicians bails on a particularly messy job. With only a few hours to clean up the human remains, Julia is in a bit of a bind. She thumbs through her Rolodex to find Clayton (Clayton Farris), a hopeful hire with a dark and sickly secret. While they work, Clayton’s particular appetite for his work soon drives them both to an ethically horrifying impasse.
“…a biohazard remediation cleaner taking care of her mother…”
First and foremost, I have to give the brightest spotlight to the cinematographer and colorist J.D. Butler, who knocks the visuals of the film right out of the park. The bleakness of Clayton’s physical situation is mirrored in Julia’s own unresolved pain, making their swirl of character dynamics all the more interesting. While the pair do not necessarily share a symbiotic story arc, their individual choices and motivations drive them together, and they are forced to make choices that truly define us as human beings – especially those revolving around empathy and protecting loved ones. Everyone has lost something here, and though they are all different, the trauma, loneliness, and constant fear of the unknown plagues each of their steps.
While the conclusion of the work stutters a bit when trying to wrap together all of its plot threads cohesively, the raw emotion of Hader and Farris make the somewhat lackluster final moments all the more interesting and maintain our immersion. Though some imagery seems to be utilized just to give the audience a brief scare to remind them this narrative has a horror foundation, it manages to offset their odd placement due to the quirky pacing, composition, and tone – it’s as if Wes Anderson had decided to dip his toes in zombie moviemaking.
Emotional, hilarious, gut-churning and unsettling all adequately describe this short, and it has the powerful framework to set the stage for a larger feature-length project. Approaching well-worn themes and genre staples with fresh perspectives and attitudes, Together is a fantastic little film that bodes extraordinarily well for the filmmaking future of Oksenberg and his stable of collaborators.
"…transcend its genre limitations to explore new sides of life and unlife as vessels for examining trauma"