When Alicia (Juno Temple) flies from California to Chile in order to spend time with her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning), she finds herself taken on an island holiday with Sarah's friends. Unable to speak the language, Alicia grows anxious at her unfamiliar surroundings and when Sarah has to leave, Alicia's social isolation and insomnia take hold, leading to increasingly erratic behaviour.
Writer/director Sebastian Silva’s creepy Magic Magic captivates for most of its first hour but gives way to a nagging sense that there is nothing very important going on. One young woman’s descent into paranoid psychosis offers much to admire but not a lot of real-person emotion to engage with; the result is a compelling but frustratingly light style-over-substance thriller.
Silva delights in disorienting his audience as much as he does his main protagonist.
The downward spiral of Alicia (Juno Temple), a timid American tourist visiting a remote rural region of Chile, is well-staged within the construct of a Wicker Man-thriller. Left alone by her cousin and travelling partner Sara (Emily Browning) and in the care of a trio of off-kilter acquaintances who alienate her by speaking Spanish and gently mocking her at every opportunity, Alicia’s fragile mental state begins to unravel. When she is deprived of sleep, is witness to acts of animal cruelty and, ultimately, subjected to some awkward sexual rough-housing, her sense of displacement and loneliness messes with her mind.
Revisiting the culture-clash elements of his 2009 hit The Maid from a darker perspective, Silva delights in disorienting his audience as much as he does his main protagonist, favouring illogical dread over clear exposition and reasoning. Scene after scene is filled with juxtaposed elements that suggests Alicia’s view of the world is at odds with reality, a device brought to life by his characters. Den mother Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno) dislikes her instantly, yet her actions indicate a carer’s mentality; Sara’s boyfriend Agustin (Agustin Silva, the director’s sibling) teases and flirts, but also shows concern.
Most affecting of all is Michael Cera as Brink, the actor offering up one of the most eccentrically dark comic performances in recent memory. Brink is an expat US citizen who dips in and out of English to suit his warped, hard-to-define agenda. Often sipping on local hooch, Brink is at his most loathsome when Alicia is hypnotised; his high-pitched, giggly evil streak emerges when he commands her to place her hand in a fire, before trying to weasel out of accepting his role in the abuse.
Random elements and ambiguous tonality all play into the overall and deliberate weirdness of the film. Agustin’s amateur hypnotist act is never fully explained; splashes of one-off oddness (the fate of abandoned, wounded puppies; the repurposing of the Cab Calloway classic 'Minnie the Moocher’ as a sinister soundtrack device) add to the dreamlike surrealism of Alicia’s world.
It is appropriate then that Magic Magic is most effective as a kind of waking nightmare; if one applies the notion that Alicia never fully wakes from her hypnotic state, some of Silva’s sillier moments (the role of a randy sheepdog, in particular, drew sniggers from the audience) can be explained away as remnants of a fever dream. DOPs Christopher Doyle and Glen Kaplan certainly provide visual cues and lighting compositions that suggests not all is of this world in Silva’s movie.
The denouement will leave audiences divided, perhaps hanging in their own state of detached confusion. Which may be the auteur’s abstract intent though at times his vision, like that of his messed-up protagonist, is too fuzzy to decipher.
12:45AM, Wednesday 16 October on SBS VICELAND
Director: Sebastian Silva
Starring: Michael Cera, Juno Temple, Emily Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Agustín Silva
What's it about?
When Alicia (Temple) flies from California to Chile in order to spend time with her cousin Sarah (Browning), she finds herself taken on an island holiday with Sarah's friends. Unable to speak the language, Alicia grows anxious at her unfamiliar surroundings and when Sarah has to leave, Alicia's social isolation and insomnia take hold, leading to increasingly erratic behaviour.