Make Up often feels too emotionally distant, but features striking horror imagery and unnerving suspense wrapped up in a story about finding yourself.
With her debut feature Make Up, writer/director Claire Oakley seems to posit that the most frightening yet fulfilling undertaking we can go through is that of discovering our own desires and finding it within ourselves to follow through on them. This moody psychological thriller takes place within a caravan park in Cornwall where Ruth (Molly Windsor) takes up residence to be with her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn). Things quickly veer toward suspicion when Ruth finds a lipstick stain on Tom’s mirror, as well as strands of long red hair within his work clothes.
The discovery sends Ruth on an emotional spiral as her occupancy within the park slowly becomes more and more unnerving. Foxes screech outside at night, the elderly neighbor woman stares across the way at Ruth at night, and Ruth appears to see someone inside a unit that is supposed to have been vacated for fumigation. The grounds increasing sense of foreboding eeriness is only diminished by Jade (Stefanie Martini), another employee of the park. Though an initial suspect, Ruth and Jade develop a friendship that begins to perturb Tom and also forces Ruth down a path of alarming self-discovery.
Oakley purposefully builds the film up as one thing and gradually shifts gears into something else entirely before circling back to weave it all together. What ostensibly begins as a realism-based relationship drama transforms into a genre-inflected horror-adjacent suspense film with an abundance of chilling images. Ruth seems to tread through a slow-building nightmare, with each disturbing occurrence building on each other until it feels like something has to break. Whether it’s Ruth pulling off a fingernail, looking out into the nighttime where it feels like someone else is sure to be staring back, or a tensely filmed daydream she returns to of two women having sex in the communal showers — whether that’s a real memory or just a haunting vision.
The mysterious tension and psychosexual motifs can only hold up so much though, and a lot of Make Up ends up running pretty dry. In the effort of making something somewhat inscrutable, there’s a relative distance and coldness that comes with interactions between characters. There’s no opportunity anyone has to really do much past stony, impassive interactions with each other and when the film finally hits what should be an emotional peak, it’s difficult to feel much for the characters past an appreciation for the narrative direction. But even then, in the attempt to make an enigmatic puzzle of this story, there are some threads that are seemingly left unresolved by the film’s end, now seeming to only serve the purpose of misleading the audience. Multiple times throughout, Oakley seems to be leading us down a particular path only to abruptly pull the rug out and leisurely take us in a different direction before doing it again. It becomes taxing by the hour mark, and for a movie that doesn’t even hit the 90-minute mark, the runtime is strongly felt.
Still, Make Up carries an eccentric spirit that can’t be written off. Sequences of suspense and moments of deep, universal truths are present here in equal measure and Oakley proves herself to be a strong director with a lot of potential in the way she manifests a search for self-actualization through the stark lens of psychological horror. It turns a search for answers into a haunting of the self, that is before we finally realize what we really want and who we really are.
This review was filed from SXSW 2020. Check out all of our remote coverage from the festival.
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