Freaks: Genre-Bending Sci-Fi Thriller Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

By Thom Ernst

Rating: A+

Freaks is a mind-bending thriller that is subversive enough to be rebellious, and in this era of CGI superhero cinema, the revolution is welcomed.

A scene from Freaks.

A scene from Freaks.

There are a lot of sub-genres that Freaks fits comfortably into—science-fiction, horror, psychological thriller, even family drama—but at the top of the list is a mystery. Something is happening inside the squalor of a boarded-up house on an American residential street, but you would be hard-pressed to figure out what that something is until the film ends.

Whatever conclusions you might initially come up with regarding this story that centres around a seven-year-old girl and her doting but paranoid father will probably be wrong, and whatever comfort you find relying on expectations based on movies you’ve seen before will likely be subverted. Know that, against all probability, everything about Freaks will eventually make sense.

The film begins with a familiar enough trope to lead you to believe that this is a path you have traveled before. A little girl, Chloe, peeks out through the windows of a rundown home that seems suitable only for squatters and shut-ins. Outside is an ice-cream truck that plays a warbled melody like some off-key mermaid luring her victim against the rocks. The girl is quickly scolded by her Dad who carts her from the window as if the outdoor light is enough to destroy them. Dad then runs Chloe through a litany of scripted lies that provide her with a counterfeit family history. Chloe is being tested, but for what? No doubt there is some threat but is the threat between father and daughter, is it inside or outside, is it real or fabricated?

Filmmakers Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein provide an engaging confusion where everything looks innocuous but feels suspiciously evil. And then there are the questions: Why does a neighbour refer to Chloe as appearing “normal?” Why is the Dad threatened that anyone should know Chloe’s name? Who is the screaming woman in the closet? From where do the endless wads of $100 bills come? And what does Mr. Snowcone, the ice cream man, really want?

At every turn, Chloe attempts to brave an escape from the confinements of her home and the restrictions of her Dad, despite threats that the outside world is out to destroy her. The instinct would be to pass off the Dad’s rants of evil, and bad guys as the muses of a man who has lost his grip on reality were it not for the almost throw-away interludes of news bulletins played out in the background on television screens. But there are no red-herrings here; the news reports, like the Dad’s rants and the ice-cream truck, and the fake family history, are legitimate clues to unraveling this multi-layered mystery.

In the role of the Dad, Emile Hirsch makes a substantial career shift into adulthood. He is disheveled, erratic, and decidedly irrational. And yet he’s a man who treats his daughter with the care and love of a man given to telling embarrassing dad jokes (were there anyone to be embarrassed around) and engaging in youthful play. Bruce Dern is solid in his role as the creepy Mr. Snowcone, the ice-cream man who lurks about the home like a fox waiting for the rabbit to leave the protection of its den. And then there is Lexy Kolker whose perfection in her role of seven-year-old Chloe makes her seem like a prodigy (Kolker herself was only seven when the movie was filmed).

Some might argue that the final act is too far of a stretch from its almost passive beginning. Admittedly, the movie does change pace considerably, progressing slowly from a routine forcible confinement drama to revving up into an action horror film. But the result is so seamlessly satisfying that whatever fault you might find in tone can easily be forgiven. The end, here, definitely justify the means.

Freaks premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and has deservedly found a place among this year’s TIFF’s Top Ten Canadian movies.

Freaks. Directd by Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein. Starring Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, and Lexy Kolker. Opens in select theatres September 13.