Like a game of Operation where someone keeps touching the sides on purpose.
Written and directed by Mitzi Peirone
Spoiler alert: pretty much N/A, but let's say "moderate"
Braid is a feature directorial debut, and every single possible negative prejudice that phrase might bring to mind is accurate. It's a feature screenwriting debut, too, and likewise. Its hyphenate creator Mitzi Peirone's previous work can be found contained within two shorts, one of which she wrote, one of which she didn't, and both of which I assume are better than her feature, not only because her feature is astonishingly bad, but because her feature is, itself, basically a non-narrative short film of around 40 minutes' length, only it's one that happens to run 84, and clearly only has a story at all because there's no place in the market for 40 minute art installations. Of course, there is still a place for terrible feature-length narrative films that barely drag themselves up to a theatrical runtime with a combination of mammoth padding and surly contempt; and, evidently, that sufficed.
Considering that "plot" is never one of Braid's goals, it's churlish to say it wastes a tantalizing premise, but I'm a churl and damned if it doesn't do exactly that. So: two twentysomething women, Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay), who've just been fronted about $80,000 worth of drugs, lose them in a police raid, obliging them to seek a massive infusion of liquid currency real quick. Their only option, as they see it, is to return to the home of their childhood friend, Daphne (Madeline Brewer), who now lives alone, Ms. Havisham-style, in her grandparents' mansion. Daphne's gone mad in the intervening years for various "reasons," but mostly because the film has styled itself a thriller for commercial purposes. Petula and Tilda scheme to steal the bundles of cash they hope Daphne has kept in her safe, representing the last of her inheritance; but for her part, Daphne is ecstatic to see her erstwhile playmates, because that means they can begin a new round of her favorite game, a hybrid of "house" and "doctor" wherein she plays Tilda's mother and Petula performs the role of an itinerant physician, come round to inspect the young lass at her mother's behest.
Anyway, you see what I mean. That would've been pretty fun, but this brief synopsis—besides the snark, not too different than what its copywriters wrote on its behalf—is a horrifically disingenuous way to describe the film, though this is in keeping with it being a disingenuous way for the screenplay to frame itself. What we actually have is a series of images Peirone wanted to capture, which are occasionally forced to service a story about Petula and Tilda being Miseried by Daphne, and also the old cop (Scott Cohen) with ties to their past, and there is not one second of it that is satisfactory except when it abandons story altogether. (It's not always acceptable when it does that, either, but at least it's stopped lying to you.) So Braid is always at its worst when it's being a narrative film, and every way it does so is wrong, from the way it fails to establish a "normal" which the encroaching horror threatens to destroy, to the way it doesn't "encroach" in the first place, with Petula and Tilda arriving at Daphne's door already in character, whereupon the game begins immediately, already drawing blood within the first sixty seconds of play. It can't disorient you because you were never oriented; it can't generate tension because it rifles through everything, both on the level of story and on the level of form; it can't create any feelings of surprise or shock about its scenario, because it's obvious nothing matters; by the twenty minute mark, it can't even startle you.
And yet I'm not being unfair to judge it on these terms, when it sets these terms itself. Braid is evidently very proud of its several twists, and even loudly (however nominally) structures itself around a series of intertitles that make reference to Daphne's three rules, "1. Everyone plays," "2. No outsiders allowed," and "3. Nobody leaves." I dunno: it seems like something of a mistake for a movie that wants to be taken as surrealist anti-fiction to arrange itself in literal chapters. It even breaks perspective to visit with the cop (otherwise, it's essentially a three-hander with the trio of women, albeit one that allows nobody but Brewer to play an actual character, and while in this instance "character" means "raving cartoon lunatic," at least that's something). Considering where the film ultimately winds up—though it explains how our good detective could possibly find these three women's childhood tragedy a defining case of his career, and even explains how two women in their mid-twenties could skip town for ten hours and be declared missing, driving the detective's presence—this is altogether a mean-spirited and damnably sloppy bit of pointlessness. Somehow, Braid has been well-received for a movie of its diminutive stature (first film, indie, stupid, bad), and of course this means that there have been attempts to tease themes out of it. Theoretically, this is possible; and, considering the elements it offers, it almost demands you to try to interpret it. It starts laying out something like themes in dialogue toward the end, possibly in recognition that it has failed to explore any during the previous 70 minutes. Hey, you can give it a go if you want; it's either about Millennial fear of adulthood or more specifically about Millennial women fearing independence and being tempted by the oppressive heteronormative nuclear family, hence it creates one, albeit populated entirely by women. But I'd hope you have something better to do.
So, if it presents as a psychological thriller, only without the psychology or the thrills, can we identify what it actually wants to be? Various technical exercises, mainly: exercises in crash-cutting matching images; exercises in what I presume to be computerized filtering; exercises in obvious "unconventional" choices regarding lens and angle; exercises in time-lapse photography; exercises in grotesque post-production slo-mo; exercises in capturing Gothic horror imagery under a chilly, uncomfortably sharp sheen; more generally, exercises in hanging out in what one suspects is a relative's redressed mansion, given the terrible low-budget nature of the film (fancying itself a work of horror, and with the violence to back it up, the movie would probably prefer you to think that its unwillingness to show gore is a choice); exercises in extremely softcore, wholly unsexy BDSM, as one might find in a badly-directed perfume commercial. Basically, it wants to be a little more than a half hour's worth of artsy fashion videography that ties together images of feminity and youth with images of pain and death. (If this sounds familiar, it should, and Braid straight up lifts at least one key image from The Neon Demon, another, more successful work of surrealism on film, that also knows that narrative is the only viable mode available to it, but at least makes its peace with it. However, the most succint way to describe the film, in the union between its narrative and its form, isn't Shitty Neon Demon, but Shitty Suspria, and either Suspiria you think I mean, you're right; and while we're at it, might as well also call it Shitty Duke of Burgundy. It's also the film that, for me, has taken the visual of a girl's dollhouse from "meaningful signifier, but overdone over the course of this past year"—Hereditary, Halloween, etc.—to "total hack cliche.")
Anyway, some of what Braid's experimenting with is modestly interesting: the color filtering is occasionally excellent at creating a fucked-up dreamscape, notably when it transforms the greenery of the mansion grounds into a purply-blue candy kingdom, set off by Tilda's red, now-pink, hair; sometimes the compositions are fascinating in and of themselves. Mostly it's not that interesting, and more often than you'd like it's straight-up amateur hour, including an axial shot of Petula screaming at a mirror/the camera that I swear to God the cinematographer has autofocused, so it bounces around trying to find her as her torso swings in and out of the focal plane. Yeah, I know, it's possible this was intentional; but "on purpose" has the word "purpose" in it. They call it Lynchian, but, you know, a lot of people don't even really like David Lynch, and it's still more undisciplined and just plain worse than any David Lynch film I've ever seen.
And that sums up more-or-less every choice in the film, very few of which ever rise above "arbitrary." At least it's short, you'd say, but it fails so hard, so quickly, that there's never a moment past the first half hour where you don't feel that runtime tightening around your throat, and by the time it launches into its succession of false endings, you can't wait for it to just stop. The defining mood of it isn't horror, or metaphor, or mindfucky weirdness, or, in the absurdity of its extremes, even comedy. No, it's just tedium, and while there's some nebulous value in watching a filmmaker go for it as much as Peirone has here, I kind of wish she hadn't, for there's never a single moment in Braid where you can feel her passion for the project, and there is nothing about her work here that doesn't feel like an effort, either for her or for her audience.