Photo: ‘Meander’/Gravitas Ventures
Officially, the closest I’ve ever come to being buried alive is watching director Mathieu Turi’s ‘Meander’. A suffocating and claustrophobic experience, Turi’s new sci-fi horror is a puzzling narrative from start to finish, and is a story that presents as much of a cerebral challenge to the viewer as the many life-threatening obstacles that surround its ill-fated protagonist. At first, ‘Meander’ is almost uncomfortably familiar. It feels cut from the same cloth as ‘Cube’ and the ‘Saw’ franchise, except with less authentic texture and even wilder plots that attempt to dull all senses of logic.
But fortunately, Turi takes his film in enough new directions for ‘Meander’ to finally find itself, discovering that its true identity couldn’t be any more different than the horror films it’s partly inspired by. Thanks to an intimate story, and enough self-awareness to avoid all the typical trappings of a ‘Saw’ cliché, ‘Meander’ manages to be its own thing while taking creative risks that pay off in the end.
‘Meander’ is Not Your Typical Horror Movie…It Just Pretends To Be
‘Meander’ maintains its facade by setting the mood the way your typical horror movie does. The atmosphere is already eerie, with a gray malnourished sky and an unrelenting chill you can almost feel blowing past you through the screen. Already, the film gives the impression that something horrible has taken place long before the opening credits introduce the movie’s cast. At the center of this ominous mood, as if she’s the source of it all, is Gaia Weiss’s Lisa. Grieving the death of her daughter, Lisa lies in the middle of an empty bleak road playing dead, waiting for some negligent driver to sweep her off her feet into the afterlife. Except when she hears the motor of a car approaching to grant her death wish, Lisa’s survival instincts kick in like a drug, forcing our protagonist to stand back up on her two feet and move out of the way of the moving car.
After a brief conversation, the driver of this desired murder weapon, Adam, offers Lisa a long ride back to town that she reluctantly accepts. What transpires afterward goes exactly how you’d expect. Adam, played by Peter Franzen, turns out to be a serial killer disguised as a good Samaritan. And it’s a surprisingly effective disguise as well, as Franzen’s Adam sounds exactly how I’d imagine the devil does whenever he’s trying to seduce a potential advocate. Adam sounds warm and supportive, yet carries with him a sinister undertone that can’t help but to make your hair stand on end. It doesn’t take long after Adam picks Lisa up that his true nature is revealed, and Lisa, who apparently hasn’t watched too many scary movies herself, is eventually knocked unconscious and is at the mercy of this charming Ted Bundy wannabe.
After her scuffle with Adam, Lisa wakes up inside what ironically looks like a cube. She’s wearing what resembles the quantum outfits the Avengers wore when they traveled through time in ‘Endgame’. There’s now a metallic bracelet around her wrist with a timer on it, the world’s most ominous watch, but we have no idea what that timer is counting down towards. To make matters worse, a door opens inside of the cube that leads to a secret passageway the size of a tunnel, one that only leads to more tunnel-sized passageways and traps inspired by a Sean Connery-era James Bond villain.
In hindsight, the absurdity of this deadly maze Lisa finds herself in should take even the most forgiving moviegoer out of the movie. The grandiosity of its design, when you stop to think about it, would require not only an unfathomable amount of funds, but also might take a whole construction and science team to build. Not to sell Adam short, but he just didn’t seem capable of building the kind of contraption that was used to imprison our desperate heroine. But looks can be deceiving, and although that skepticism was present, it’s a testament to the film’s tension that I was able to suspend disbelief enough to lose myself in its narrative.
The camera never once leaves Lisa’s side, which helps sell the situation as we’re feeling all of the captive’s confusion and panic. With Turi keeping us so close and personal to his star, our five senses are honed into Lisa, and eventually, the irrationality of her predicament becomes a shadow of our thoughts. Soon, thanks to Turi’s sensitive camera work, all we care about is escaping this death cube with the same sense of urgency that Lisa has, because we can worry about the answers to this puzzle after we’re safe. In the beginning, we spend a decent amount of time following Lisa as she familiarizes herself with this maze, exploring every detail, crawling through every mouth that opens up in this tunnel while knowing full well the chances of true freedom are slim.
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But it’s a journey that feeds into ‘Meander’s’ suspense since Lisa’s exploration only reveals just how powerless she really is, and how her escape might be nothing more than an exercise in futility. The film transplants Lisa’s panic into the viewer, it preys on and exploits the emotional discomfort it forces onto us so that logic never gets in the way of the experience. Then, suddenly, ‘Meander’ rewards your patience and your suspension of disbelief with a bizarre justification that attempts to make sense of Lisa’s circumstances.
This revelation plays like a quick sleight of hand, where while you’re keeping your eye on the film, Turi pulls a trick out of his sleeve that completely changes the way you’ll both watch and remember Lisa’s journey. This simple yet effective card trick motivates ‘Meander’ to rise above a ‘Saw’ or an ‘Escape Room’ lookalike. Instead, it ends up being inspired filmmaking with a higher calling that truly does something unique with a tired subgenre of horror.
‘Meander’ Is A One Woman Show, And Is Better Off For It
From the beginning of the film, our attention is on Gaia Weiss’s Lisa and never wanders away. Everything is from her perspective, we can only interpret her environment the way that she interprets it, and because of that, ‘Meander’ allows for very little spoon-feeding. Watching the film unfold under this first-person narrative is like looking at the stars through a telescope, it helps narrow down Turi’s grand vision into a more personal story that hits close to home. By keeping it Lisa-centric, there are few distractions or unnecessary characters, giving us no choice but to invest all of our emotions into this one person without having to worry about anyone else.
The traps are also a lot more threatening by virtue of us being as close as we are to Lisa. If she dies, we get the impression that there’s no jumping into another character for us to potentially survive vicariously through. Instead, ‘Meander’ starts and ends with her, which makes every obstacle she passes mean that much more. Even though the situation seems hopeless, every minute Lisa spares for herself is a small victory worthy of celebration that we never take for granted.
As well written as the character is, the emotional arc just wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Weiss’s incredible performance. She does for ‘Meander’ what Ryan Reynolds did for ‘Buried’, and manages to carry an entire film off the strength of her talent alone. Her range is on full display here, from helpless prisoner to determined survivor in the face of overwhelming odds, Weiss does justice to Lisa and Turi’s phenomenal script.
Since the role gets by on very little dialogue, Weiss succeeds in communicating her emotions through her body and facial expressions, which ends up being more effective in showcasing the character’s internal and external struggles than just words. The actress is able to translate messages through nonverbal physical language so passionately that during those moments she speaks her native tongue French, even if you might not know the language, you’ll feel like you understand everything she’s saying with no difficulty. It’s a truly impressive performance that gives ‘Meander’ another reason to aim higher than other horror movies with similar styles.
An Allegory For Grief
Surprisingly, and most likely intentionally, ‘Meander’ operates well as a metaphor for not only Lisa’s grief, but grief in general. It externalizes the five stages of grief, turning them into physical barriers that Lisa has to fight through. At the same time, through these trials, the woman who was once dead set on killing herself clings to a life she wanted to throw away. Because of these torturous situations she finds herself in, her mourning gives way to her survival instincts, the most powerful impulse in a living thing’s body, which gives her the strength to persevere in the face of a seemingly inevitable defeat.
Secretly, we watch Lisa develop into something stronger than she once was, finding more room to grow in the tight, claustrophobic spaces of these tunnels than she ever did outside of them. It’s a powerful, poetic exploration that sophisticates the narrative and further adds dimension to a film that’s determined to reach further than it can grasp. And somehow, it succeeds.
The best part about ‘Meander’ is that it’s surprising how good it is. Granted, it might not be for everyone, as it heads down a path that some are going to find satisfying, and others might find unacceptable, with very little room for a middle ground. But to fans of ambitious storytelling, especially the kind that blends together the sci-fi genre with horror, ‘Meander’ is a film that will give you everything you’re looking for and more. I can’t recommend it enough.
Directed By: Mathieu Turi | Written By: Mathieu Turi
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