Film Threat archive logo


By Jeremy Knox | September 20, 2007

Canada has its own Id, Ego and Superego. I don’t care what anyone says, we do. Our psyche exists on a plane totally separate from our neighbor the United States. Vancouver is not just L.A. further North. Montreal is not just NYC Lite. Ottawa isn’t Washington D.C. on a budget and run by people with an inferiority complex. Well… actually, that last one may be true.

Nonetheless, there’s a looking glass quality to Canadian films. It’s subtle, but it’s there. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Canadian films (those of which embrace their heritage) have their own flavor and style and that no matter how much money is thrown at us from down South we will always have that going for us. Which, brings me to Phillippe Spurrell’s “The Descendant”. A film so Canadian that the negative probably tastes like maple syrup. It’s an experience you Yanks rarely get because so many of the films made here shed most of their Canadian-ness in the hopes of making some quick Merkin money; which is the equivalent, in my opinion, of a white guy wearing blackface so he can become a rapper. It’s both offensive and moronic. So right off the bat Spurrell deserves praise for making a Canadian film that takes place in CANADA for once, not a very badly rendered “Iowa” or some damn place.

The Descendant is about a man named James finally working up the courage to open a box that his mother left him in her will. She had always kept the details of her life a secret, but in this box are clues to her past. He discovers an address book that tells him he has two grandparents and that he comes from a town called St-Harmonie. It even has their phone number. He calls up and is somewhat reluctantly invited to come. Once there he’s faced with a rather hostile and backwards general populace, a flirty childhood friend of his mom, a grandmother who adores him on sight and a grandfather who’s not quite sure how he feels just yet. Of course, there’s also a rattling of chains somewhere out in the cornfields and an angry howl lost in the wind.

I love these types of films. Nice quiet ghost stories like the ones Henry James or Nathaniel Hawthorne used to cook up. No loud explosions. No forced scares every two seconds in a feeble attempt at momentum. In fact, Descendant is downright literary in its mood and pacing. This is the type of stuff that old men tell each other in dark libraries over cigars and cognac while sitting in overstuffed chairs.

Did I like this movie? Yes. Very much so. The writing is strong and smart, the direction is good, the acting is very very decent (Canadian actors always bug me a little, they tend to elocute theatrically too much in my opinion. They do it here too but it’s less pronounced than usual and it didn’t send me into fits of aggravated fury.), the cinematography is excellent. The shots of those cornfields are absolutely beautiful. The score is nice and subtle. Most of the film works really well. I especially like how Jim Reid plays the role of James’ grandfather. Always showing a little bit of genuine love and loyalty for his grandson buried under all that anger and suspicion. It’s a nice nuanced performance and the highlight of the film. I’m appalled to find out from the imdb that he hasn’t made any other films. He’s a fine actor. I will also say that it’s EXTREMELY nice to see an indie film shot on 35mm. I don’t really miss the format much until I see how lush and rich it looks like, as it does here. It must have cost a mint to do it this way rather than digital but it was worth every penny.

Do I think this movie totally works? No. There are problems. Some scenes towards the end, during the big reveal, just don’t work. After all that creepy secretive buildup, they seem a trifle goofy. Also, James seems to have almost supernatural intuition about what to do and how to find clues, while the locals seem to go out of their way to make themselves look suspicious, leaving us to doubt that they could have held on to a secret of such magnitude for so long. Finally, the film is frustratingly PG during moments that you know that would be R rated in real life; just little things like that, nothing major, but the film is so literate and artistic that you feel that this sort of thing shouldn’t be there in the first place.

In any case, I’ll take an occasionally problematic intelligent movie over a flawlessly executed dumb movie any day of the week. Doesn’t mean the flaws aren’t there, just means that I can forgive them more easily. Besides, I love maple syrup and bacon.

Note: There is one important thing that you should be aware of if you see this film. I know people in Quebec better than anyone, I come from here, and I will tell you this: Nothing this film show is impossible. We ARE capable of the nastiness it mentions. It’s in our soul and character. For example, during the Civil War, a lot of us went down to the States to fight… for the South. Our hearts can be very dark. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. – J.K.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon