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Normal (2013)
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by Jay Seaver

"Superintendant Serial Killer."
4 stars

This is not the first time independent director Richard Griffin has tried to give his audience the creeps without having his tongue planted in his cheek - given how prolific the Rhode Island filmmaker has been since he started making movies about 15 years ago, it's no surprise that he's done a bit of everything - but it's likely his best so far. It's occasionally as shaky as one might expect from an off-the-grid production that straddles the art-house and the grindhouse, but it works out pretty well.

It starts out with Jim (Michael Reed) interrupting a rather one-sided conversation with the body in his bathtub to take a call from one of the residents of the building he and brother Tom (Nathaniel Sylva) own where Jim is the superintendent. The tenants are odd - newlyweds David (Patrick Keeffe) and Lucy (Monica Saviolakis) seem normal enough, but Kate (Elyssa Baldassari) is clearly disturbed, while both middle-aged George (David Erin Wilson) and seedy roommates April (Samantha Acampora) & June (Shannon Hartman). He only has eyes for a call girl (Sarah Nicklin) whose affections seem more sincere but who won't let him use her name when she's there in a professional capacity. Tom wants to sell and move away with his girlfriend, but Jim refuses. It probably has something to do with that corpse.

There are two types of serial-killer story that leap to mind from this situation, and while the second has probably been done enough that it's familiar enough on its own way, it is still more interesting and less purely mechanical than having Jim do nothing but murder his way through his neighbors as they complain about their apartments not receiving the maintenance they need. Griffin and writer Lenny Schwartz don't tease the audience by being needlessly cryptic for longer than they need to, but they do make good use of ambiguity and misdirection well enough that things can go in different directions without it being too obvious. The end is, perhaps, a little too weirdly metaphorical for the film's own good, but it gets there more honestly than some other movies of this type, in part because of an amusing (but still creepy) self-awareness.

"Creepy" generally seems to be Griffin's priority, and it's good that he doesn't waver from that much; this is the sort of story where there's a temptation to mix the tone up, but it's much better for not doing so. Griffin also edits, keeping the pace tight even as the movie feels like things are happening in a not particularly urgent manner. He also make a good team with cinematographer Ken Willinger, opting for home-movie grain and shots from disconcertingly high that certainly at least give the viewer the illusion of having more access to the inside of Jim's head than may actually be the case. They do a nice job of switching up color palettes and other bits of visual style for flashbacks and transition points, too; it's obvious but the way things developed lets that work out okay.

Michael Reed works out fairly well, too. He carries himself so that Jim is never particularly imposing but jumps to a level beyond typical annoyance but well short of an obviously dangerous psychopath quickly and believably, but there's also something damaged and confused enough about the guy that he comes across as oddly easy to empathize with, enough to hope for a way out. He plays especially well against real-life wife Sarah Nicklin, who does a nice enough job of highlighting how Shelley is as attracted to Jim as anybody in the film but is sure enough of herself to add her own terms to it. Both have been a regular part of Griffin's films for the past few years, and that's true of most of the cast. Some members of that repertory company are kind of rough, but David Erin Wilson makes it work for him better than most, and Nathaniel Sylva turns in a fairly nice supporting performance.

When all these better than usual elements are put together, "Normal" winds up being pretty good. It's got moments when it's still the cinematic equivalent of community theater, but at least it's the type where the company has developed some chops and ambition, enough so that folks outside the community will be interested in what these guys do next.

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originally posted: 03/09/14 02:25:29
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User Comments

3/09/14 Steve Worth a look if you want to laugh at something 2 stars
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Directed by
  Richard Griffin

Written by
  Lenny Schwartz

  Michael Reed
  Sarah Nicklin
  Nathaniel Sylva
  David Erin Wilson

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