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Dustin Putman

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Bereavement  (2011)
2 Stars
Directed by Stevan Mena.
Cast: Alexandra Daddario, Michael Biehn, Brett Rickaby, Spencer List, Nolan Gerard Funk, Kathryn Meisle, Peyton List, John Savage, Valentina de Angelis, Ashley Wolfe, Chase Pechacek.
2011 – 107 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for sadistic bloody violence, language and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 22, 2011.
"It's funny," says 17-year-old Allison (Alexandra Daddario), "how a stranger can come along and, in the blink of an eye, destroy everything." She is speaking of the heartache she has experienced in her past, more specifically the fatal auto accident that took her beloved parents from her, but her words also ominously portend her own imminent fate. A character-centric thriller signifying writer-director-editor-composer Stevan Mena's progression as a filmmaker even as it doesn't quite retain the same home-grown charm and earnestness of its predecessor, increasingly brutal prequel "Bereavement" works fine as a standalone feature, but provides added satisfaction to viewers who have already seen 2004's unnerving "Malevolence." If "Malevolence" was primarily a slasher film in the style and tradition of classics such as 1974's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," 1978's "Halloween," and 1981's "Friday the 13th Part 2," then "Bereavement" ambitiously strives for a penetrating, realistic tone reminding more of 2002's psychological "Frailty" than a conventional jaunt with a Michael Myers clone. It's an altogether darker, less fun experience, certainly proficient in what it sets out to do, if, at times, falling a little too close to the side of the torture subgenre.

In the rural community of Minersville, Pennsylvania, circa 1989, 5-year-old Martin Bristol was kidnapped from his own backyard by Graham Sutter (Brett Rickaby), a local serial killer who lives in his family's closed-down, ramschackle meat packing plant. Five years later, Martin (Spencer List) has become Graham's makeshift son and accomplice, helping him to do his bidding as he systematically snatches young women, holds them captive for a while, then slaughters them. Unknowingly moving perpendicular to these dangerous figures is Allison, who has come to live with her uncle Jonathan (Michael Biehn), aunt Karen (Kathryn Meisle), and precocious niece Wendy (Peyton List) after the deaths of her parents. Allison struggles to move on, enrolling in the local high school and befriending neighborhood boy William (Nolan Gerard Funk), who she likes despite Jonathan's claims that he's "trailer trash." When she spots a young boy staring at her from the window of the defunct factory she passes each day during her jog, the decision to step foot on the property and investigate will drastically alter the course of her life.

"Bereavement" lays a crimson-strewn claim on a high body count, but, unlike "Malevolence," it's less a conventional slasher pic than it is a calamitous study of the cycle that violence creates within society and the ricochet effect it often has on victims' families, acquaintances, and communities. The psychology within writer-director, et. al. Stevan Mena's storytelling is perfectly plausible, thus making the film one that viewers can more closely imagine happening in the real world. Mena doesn't necessarily delve very deep—Martin's experiences being raised and brainwashed by Graham Sutter are shown in brief spurts, their day-to-day lives outside of the crimes Graham commits hardly glimpsed—but he makes his point all the same. Those that fall under Graham's knife aren't the only ones impacted, either; the picture's most heartbreaking moment is one in which a wheelchair-bound father (John Savage) gazes out the front door of his house, waiting for the return of a teenage son—his caretaker—whom he does not yet know has been killed. It's such a simple shot, yet its spareness and insinuations are all that are needed. We understand what Mena is hoping to be conveyed, and it comes through loud and clear.

Brett Rickaby (2010's "The Crazies") is appropriately in control and delirious all at once as the intimidating Graham Sutter, haunted by the spectral memory of his murderous father, and Spencer List is an understandable blank slate as the impressionable young Martin Bristol, the scar across his cheek a token of who he belongs to. These characters serve a more symbolic purpose than ones that might have been better developed, and the actors equip themselves well under those limiting circumstances. Despite lead billing from Michael Biehn (2007's "Grindhouse"), playing Uncle Jonathan, it is Alexandra Daddario (2011's "Hall Pass") who has the meatiest role as heroine Allison, still trying to find reason in the loss of her parents as her life collides with yet another tragedy. Daddario has a piercing look and expressive eyes that help quite a bit whenever any fleeting moments of artifice sneak into her performance.

For viewers who have seen and remember "Malevolence," it will come as no surprise that the ending of "Bereavement," a prequel leading into the events of the previous film, will not exactly be filled with candy and flowers. Indeed, there are precious few happy endings by the end credits, the thought of where all the characters that have been sympathetically set up find themselves all the more impacting in hindsight than while it goes down. This may be because, as horrible as the narrative gets for the people involved by the last act, Mena still seems to hold back, unable to produce the visceral punch of a similar set-piece in 2009's gut-wrenching "Martyrs." What the director does do splendidly is build a starkly picturesque atmosphere with an indelible artist's eye (love the images of the cow skull) and pacing that is deliberate but taut. The cinematography by Marco Cappetta is also top-notch, unveiling a landscape speckled with abandoned traces of industry amongst lonesome open fields and dirt roads. It's the sort of place where everyone knows everyone's business, but it's just as easy for unthinkable crimes to slip between the cracks. "Bereavement" is as grim as its title, a motion picture that knows who its specialized audience is and goes after them in short order.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman