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Rusalka (aka The Siren), The
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by Jay Seaver

"A lake monster's quite, human horror."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: Give "The Rusalka" credit - it starts with its title monster all but explicitly defined as a metaphor for being destroyed by a broken heart and lashing out afterward, and like the best horror movies, it never wavers from that, using every moment to play into that idea and not selling it out for a quick shock, even if something else may make for a cooler, more exciting horror story.

It opens with two men arriving at Lake Argo separately. Tom (Evan Dumouchel) is mute (though not deaf) and seems to be in the process of re-evaluating his being part of a religious community. Even without speaking, he's a pleasant fellow and has rented a cozy lake house to stay in, and while out on a boat, he meets Nina (Margaret Ying Drake) out in the middle of the lake. They're cute together, but Tom isn't in a position to see that Nina never actually gets out of the lake, keeping a change of clothes and a cache of jewelry in a hidden corner. The other arrival, Al (MacLeod Andrews), probably wouldn't be surprised; his boyfriend drowned visiting this lake and he's been reading up on water spirits in the hope of vengeance.

It's a lonely thing, being a lake monster, and there's probably a darkly comic movie to be made about just what such an entity does during the off-season. Perry Blackshear instead offers up a woman stuck in a life she doesn't care for and but from which she can't escape. At times it plays both poverty and addiction, or the frequent overlap, a situation which seems like it could be solved if she would just get out of the water, although that's easier said than done. Nina's desire to be human again is the most compelling story with the best balance of just getting it out there and letting the audience piece it together, and Margaret Ying Drake is quietly impressive in the role, charged with not making Nina the typical seductress but instead making her someone that both Tom and the audience can like even if she's not strong enough to fight her nature (and has now come to live with it).

Al's thread can be muddled and Tom's suffers a bit by not being able to directly explain itself, although they get interesting if you take the metaphor further and see them as the ineffectual ways people tend to react to addiction in general, with Tom perhaps showing an excess of empathy without an actual plan while Al's instincts are punitive, unable to see Nina as anything but a monster who leaves death in her wake. The pair are fine, although MacLeod Andrews is never able to put the same spark into Al that Evan Dumouchel can give Tom. All three main cast members work best off one another, and Andrews is the one most often on his own.

With seemingly little in the way of resources, Blackshear and company do good work playing to their strengths: The cast is easy to like, so we get to sit with them a while, letting them be tremendously charming despite their individual sadness and loneliness. There's just enough time looking at the rusalka mythology and how Nina is drawn to the other people on the lake that horror always lurks on the edges, and Blackshear gives the film a washed-out look that emphasizes how they're faded: The water of this lake doesn't reflect a deep blue sky or green shore, but a cloudy white or a starless black.

It's strung out a bit toward the end - the filmmakers keep going after two separate moments that could be climactic and transformative, though it leads to a final scene that probably contains a great deal of truth. Still, except for that hiccup, this is a story of the supernatural that keeps its eye on the ball and never loses track of the story it sets out to tell and what it wants to be about even when something more visceral would probably get it noticed more.

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originally posted: 10/11/19 05:00:58
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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