By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Sara Garcia, John Cassini and Julian Richings
Written and directed by Braden Croft
775 Media Corp./Venntertainment
“I can be pretty unpredictable,” says Avery Malone (Sara Garcia) in TRUE FICTION, and so is the movie. Writer/director Braden Croft’s third feature, which world-premiered at the recent Fantaspoa festival, keeps you on tantalizingly uncertain psychological footing for most of its running time. It carries a sense of uneasiness from the beginning, both emotionally and in terms of where you might believe its story and characters are going.
Among the expectations TRUE FICTION subverts, fortunately, are those set up by the trailer, which makes the movie look like some kind of torture-porny exploitation of a young woman’s suffering. TRUE FICTION has a lot more on its mind, delving into the dark side of the creative process and the relationship between artist and creation. “What if Shakespeare was a murderer? What would you think about HAMLET then?” asks Caleb Conrad (John Cassini), a reclusive horror author whose rep lies not just on his frightening works but on the fact that he never shows his face in public.
That line taps directly into current concerns surrounding misbehaving media figures, but for young aspiring writer Avery, it’s part of a cultivated personality that intrigues her into applying for a gig as Caleb’s assistant. Working a lowly library job (in early scenes establishing the decline of interest in reading in general), Avery wants to learn from Caleb, and once she’s been delivered to his isolated, expansive house in the woods, she’s willing to play along when he informs her that their time together will be an “experiment” intended to fire up Caleb’s muse. Flattering and cajoling Avery, promising that they’ll collaborate once the experiment is over, Caleb convinces her to sign a contract—and the fact that his own signature is different than that on one of his signed books, plus a bit of suspicious observed behavior by the initial interviewers, are small warning signs to Avery that she’s entering dangerous territory.
Croft is after more than a simple study of a successful man taking advantage of an adoring girl, though, even if Caleb’s experiment has to do with eliciting fear from his new disciple. Scenes of Avery being subjected to sensory deprivation and the like are disturbing but brief, and she’s no simpering victim but stands up to him early and often. Their conflict plays out on both a physical level, and a creative one: He taunts her via the very act of writing about what he’s been putting her through—calmly, like it’s just part of the exercise—and she responds by telling him that his pages need a lot of work. As the stakes become increasingly raised, in part because the trials Caleb puts her through force her to confront a tragic past involving her sister, Croft develops a psychological cat-and-mouse scenario in which it’s sometimes unclear who the feline is, and where the claws begin to drawn blood.
Establishing a stark, wintry atmosphere early on with cinematographer Ian Lister, Croft keeps the twists coming as more players begin appearing to take part in game—but are they only just playing? Through it all, Garcia impressively keys into Avery’s vulnerability and her determination to see the process through, even when doing so becomes a question of physical survival, and Cassini conveys an aura of mild-mannered menace while keeping us guessing about Caleb’s true motivations. TRUE FICTION ultimately takes a turn or two too many, its rug-pulling becoming a little muddled in the final stretch, but in large part, it’s a refreshingly complex and ambitious, sometimes genuinely unnerving power game.