Friday, February 19, 2016

Found Footage Friday: Exhibit A (2007)

Any horror movie aficionado who harbors doubts about the validity or efficacy of the found footage format should watch Exhibit A (2006), one of the format’s darkest and most effective offerings. 

Unlike the vast majority of found footage horror films, Exhibit A does not concern anything remotely supernatural or paranormal.  Rather, it charts with meticulous detail the slow but steady disintegration of a middle-class family in Yorkshire, England.

As you might guess, there’s nothing pretty about the family’s destruction. Instead, the film’s camera acts as witness to all the daily pressures that ultimately drive the family patriarch, Andy King (Bradley Cole), over the edge of sanity.

Those pressures are interpersonal, and they are financial. The demons that Andy battles -- and is defeated by -- are the demons that people like you and I face all the time.  

These devils are past due bills, a mortgage payment, and so forth. Throw a bit of alcoholism into the mix and one can detect how dangerous the environment can become.

Although it is certainly possible to interpret or parse Andy as a typical horror movie “Bad Father,” one can nonetheless experience sympathy for this misguided, deeply-flawed man as well. 

By picture’s end, Andy turns into a monster, yes, but in large part it is because there is nothing he can do to live up to the role that society has demanded he play; no way for him to earn back the lost love and respect of his family.

Produced on a shoestring budget, Exhibit A is remarkably well-made, and -- in its story of “real life” pressures -- proves itself one of the most horrifying and harrowing found-footage films that I’ve seen.

Watching Exhibit A, you know all along how it is bound to end, but still you can’t turn away from it. 

You search the footage for clues about pathology and psychosis, but the dark answer behind the “death” of the King family is more complex than a simple pointing out any one individual’s behavior.  

Andy’s dark action is not just about him, but about the daily pressures and expectations that make people crack, and turn against those they love most.

“Why is it that you hate me so much?”

Andy King (Bradley Cole), gives his daughter, Judith (Brittany Ashworth), a video camera for her birthday. 

 Judith uses the device to chart her interactions with the family, including her brother, Joe (Oliver Lee) and her mother, Sheila (Angela Forest). Judith also uses the camera to explore her own sexual awakening, and a fascination with the beautiful neighbor next door, Claire.

Andy is up for promotion, and his wife wants to move to a new house on the beach. But buying that house will be a stretch, financially-speaking, and their current house must be sold. 

Andy believes he can get a better price for the current home if it has a backyard pool.  Since he can’t afford to put one in, Andy begins digging the pool himself.

And then Andy doesn’t get the promotion he expected, and he lies to his family about it.  Later, a co-worker bound for that promotion is injured on the job, and Andy looks to be responsible.

As Andy’s behavior grows more desperate and violent, Judith follows his every move with the camera, a move that causes Andy to go ballistic and reveal the intimate secrets of all those whom he loves.  

But there are some secrets he learns that destroy the family, and make it impossible to reconcile. Realizing what he has done, Andy takes final, irrevocable action against his loved ones.

“You don’t have to pretend anymore.”

We see during a tour of the King family house during the opening act of Exhibit A that the abode is labeled “Camelot.”  

That’s a brilliant allusion to start this movie out on. Camelot is the home of “kings,” isn’t it, and a name for a place of idyllic peace, happiness and tranquility?  Camelot is what a family home should be, and what the Kings fancy their home to be.

But this particular Camelot is short-lived, as a series of financial setbacks drive Andy King to madness and murder. 

Here, one motivating factor for that madness is Andy’s inability to provide a better life (a new and improved Camelot) for his middle-class family He believes he will be promoted to “area manager” on the job, and that a new house on the beach is within reach.

Upward mobility is the name of the game, and he believes he can make it happen for the Kings.

But Andy doesn’t get the job, and the house was never really within reach. 

Andy can’t stand to face these truths, and more trenchantly, can’t stand to be seen as a failure in terms of providing for his family.  

So he lies. And he makes one bad decision after another.  

These bad decisions include attempting to put in a swimming pool at Camelot, and, ultimately, injuring a co-worker so he can take his job…and higher paycheck.

Then, when Andy is outed as a liar -- and he is a liar -- he strikes back at his family, noting that they are liars too.  

Judith is gay, and Andy does the unthinkable. He outs her to the family before she has even had the chance to fully examine how she feels about herself, or her orientation.  

He also reveals that Joe is a drug addict, and that Sheila, his wife, has lied about her pregnancies.  

The truth in the last case is far more upsetting than Andy could have imagined. Andy learns that Sheila had an abortion, without telling him, rather than have a third child that the family cannot afford.  

Again, this is an affront to Andy’s sense that he is the leader of the family, and that he can provide for those who dwell in Camelot. Sheila's action proves that she doesn't believe him. That she's never believed in him.

As you can probably tell, Andy is a defensive listener too He takes all feedback from Judith and the others as an attack, and doubles down on every bad decision he makes.  It gets to the point -- in the final moments of the film -- when the only way for Andy to save face involves murder.

There are a lot of larger societal questions brewing underneath Exhibit A

Why do we keep raising men to believe that they must have all the answers, and always be “knights in shining armor” for their families? The fact of the matter is that such an expectation creates enormous pressure for some men. Andy does what he does, finally, because he can’t stand being a failure; can’t bear his failure to live up to society’s ideal for fathers and husbands.

Another issue, of course, is financial. Andy has a job, and yet can’t keep up with the financial demands of the middle class. He fails to get his wife the house she wants, and then fails to increase the value of “Camelot," the Kings' current house.  

Andy's desperation becomes evident -- and pathetic – as he attempts to stage with Joe and Judith a funny video for a sweepstakes that could make them rich if only they win.  At first the staging is light and funny, and then it turns increasingly dark and ominous, as Andy continues to demand that they do it again and again.  

Before long, a moment of “family fun” becomes absolute torture.

And that’s because Andy -- unbeknownst to his children -- needs that video to succeed. He is desperate for the money it will bring. He has banked the entire future on winning a contest, and that isn't really a valid or smart choice.

The film’s big question, of course, involves Andy and his nature. Is he a bad guy, and villain? Is he a monster?

Certainly, the acts Andy commits at film’s end are monstrous and nightmarish for any good father or family man to contemplate. And yet one can see, throughout the film, Andy’s feelings of inadequacy about himself.  He wants so desperately to be loved and admired, and when that door finally shuts, he feels he has no recourse but violence.  I'm not excusing this choice, the final bad decision among many. But based on the footage, it isn't all that unexpected, is it?

One scene captures perfectly Andy’s state-of-mind. 

Pool-side, he starts to dance frenetically and pathetically, longing for some approbation, some applause. He wants everyone to celebrate him, and what he has accomplished for the family. But Andy is dancing in place, not moving forward, and the dance only paints over insecurities deep and permanent.  The dance scene will make you cringe, as you feel bot embarrassed and sad for Andy. Every attempt to make his family happy back-fires and makes thing worse.

Most found footage movies are about monsters from the outside world, like zombies, demons, or Bigfoot. Exhibit A dwells on the monsters that eat at us from our own insides.  Those monsters have names like insecurity and depression.

As the movie's tag line reminds us, the camera never lies. And Andy's family stopped being "camelot" a long, long time ago.  He just never understood that.

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