Cinequest 2023 – Abruptio

The Uncanny Valley is a technical term that gives a label to the upsetting nature of images that are very close to being realistic, but somehow lack an aspect, a spark, a soul that would make them convincingly real. The term is typically used in critically analyzing computer generated faces that, while impressive in their anatomical detail, still fail to convey life in a disturbing fashion. 

“My name is Les Hackel and I have a bomb in my neck. Just like everyone else.”

Abruptio doesn’t just live in the uncanny valley, it bought prime real estate and built a mansion in the foothills with an incredible view.

Writer/director Evan Marlow has composed a dark and strange story where the characters are all played by extremely clever and grotesque puppets. Arguably a science fictional situation, the majority of players are convinced they must do violent and destructive acts or bombs that have been implanted in their necks will be remotely exploded. Each character’s survival depends on their completion of truly awful tasks set before them without opportunity to object or negotiate.

That in itself is not an uncommon plot device these days (looking at you Suicide Squad.) But the introduction of puppets as the physical actors in Abrupto makes it that much more awful, that much stranger. We should be able to emotionally remove ourselves from this dispaly violence and destruction. Most of it involves violently damaging the obviously rubber characters. Almost realistic bodies are shot, slashed, bashed and ground up, but we never mistake them for real. Films using flesh and blood actors suffering special effect wounds may make us gasp, but rarely affect the viewer as strongly. It’s a paradox that deserves examination beyond the scope of this review.

The absolute nebbish of an office worker, Les Hackel, voiced by Buffy vampire James Marsters, is our point of view character. We watch his conversion from numb office drone victim to numb violent operaitve as tasks go from merely violent to insanely gross. His puppet face doesn’t convey much in the way of subtle reaction. And this leaves Marsters the task of filling it all in with vocals as Les careens down a twisted road through the uncanny valley.

And we can’t ignore the idea that the characters who are forced to perform violent acts are certainly pawns of the puppet masters. Those hidden manipulators assigning those tasks are not shown specifically, their plans not revealed. It does appear that the ploys are not limited to Les and those he comes in contact with. The world does seem to be falling apart, that what we’re seeing is just a sampling of what is going on everywhere.

For the viewer, the paradox of having an unexpected and unsettling emotional reaction to watching puppet violence where we might similarly be numb to human actors recreating these scenes is not lost here. Watching puppet limbs and torsos ground to bits is something that the only the most daring, or self-destructive, producer might greenlight for a human-acted film. But in Abrupto the excuse that “they’re just hunks of rubber” is unsaid, but certainly in play. And in a very real way, even more disturbing.

So, I appreciated and to an odd extent enjoyed Abruptio. But I am left wondering who then is this film for? I would have to give this a cautionary recommendation. Arguably it’s for viewers who like entertainment that challenges their preconceptions of film, and of film realities. I find it similar in taste to the more extreme experimental films of David Lynch, but perhaps with more paradoxical normalcy than Lynch typically gave viewers of Inland Empire or Eraserhead.

In short, I would leave you with this advice: if after reading this review you’re curious, then by all means see Abruptio.

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See if you can pick out which characters are voiced by Jordan Peele and Robert Englund.

Ric Bretschneider
August 20, 2023

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