Will (Cameron Hartl), his wife Millie (Joy Nyveen) and daughter Jenny (Vanessa Pilon) move out to the remote wilderness to the type of environment you only get to by plane or boat. Mostly alone, save for an old, empty village and a hermit who lives somewhere nearby, the family goes about their day-to-day business. Millie and Jenny explore the woods, and Will goes bowhunting.
Things aren’t as simple as appearances might let on, however. Will and Millie are having some marital discord for various reasons, one of which begins to rear its ugly head when Will seems a bit too interested in his daughter Jenny, and things only get worse when Will accidentally kills the hermit while hunting. Between the stress of the accident, his attempt at covering it up, cabin fever, hallucinations and an attack by a wolf (arguably Nature’s revenge for Will’s manslaughter), Will begins to breakdown. Which means those around him are no longer safe.
To say that Frédéric Leclair’s Totem & Taboo is informed by Kubrick’s The Shining is an understatement. From the makeup of the family (Dad, Mom, kid) to the remote location that no one can get to easily to even the helpful character at the beginning of the film who offers to come to their rescue should they ever need it, to name just a few, the film treads much shared ground with the classic.
But where Kubrick’s film, arguably, only hinted at the possibility of sexual abuse between Jack Torrance and his son Danny, this film sets up a father who, while maybe not already having transgressed with his own daughter, is severely contemplating it. Which adds a pretty big “ick” factor to the entire film, because instead of watching an abusive alcoholic slowly go mad due to a haunted hotel, you’re watching a guy with a burgeoning passion for pedophilia slowly move ever more in a predatory direction towards his daughter due to a bout of cabin fever coupled with some recent trauma. As far as personal demons go, Will’s are about as dark and disgusting as you can get.
And while things definitely got more accelerated by the location and events, it was seemingly always heading in this direction. When you first start to get the feeling that something is off with Will in relation to daughter Jenny, it’s not like it comes after something awful as happened. He’s already been thinking about sexually abusing her; he’s been fighting it off, but it’s not like this nature is new to him. Once the other stresses start up, he just loses the ability to fight off the awful feelings he’s got brewing.
Which, again, makes this a rough film to watch. Nevermind the more lo-fi trip-ups of the filmmaking and some comically bad CGI-work (between the not-so-realistic deer and the eventual talking totem pole, you get the feeling the filmmaker should’ve left well enough alone), it’s just not entertaining to watch a potential pedophile slowly succumb to his temptations. It’s just creepy and uncomfortable.
To make matters worse, because it is so Shining-esque, the beats become extremely predictable. But whereas that film had a labyrinthian hotel to explore and build drama in, Totem & Taboo is just woods, woods and more woods. And then it becomes repetitive as Will begins to actively turn on his family, and it becomes cat-and-mouse in said woods, with a hallucination or two thrown in for good measure.
If you can’t tell, by pretty much all accounts, I did not enjoy this film. The problem with having a film that is so obviously influenced by another, and in this case an absolute classic piece of cinema, is that it’s very hard to turn off the comparisons. And it is unfair to compare Totem & Taboo to The Shining, but it’s also almost impossible not to.
That said, to Totem & Taboo‘s credit, it came up with an idea and scenario and really went for it, despite all the risks therein. I may not have enjoyed it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the attempt. Pedophilia is not going to be a subject that many are going to be comfortable with, and the filmmakers could’ve easily gone in another direction, but they chose a challenging one and stuck with it all the way. Again, the film didn’t work for me but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make some bold choices and take some big time risks. Whether those choices work or risks pay off, I’d rather a filmmaker truly commit to them and try something than just give me bland, mediocre and safe.
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