Writer Jimmy Dougan (click here to follow at Letterboxd)/ Press images courtesy of Altitude Films
Look, here’s the deal: Talk to Me is one of the year’s best films.
It’s a remarkable feat of genre filmmaking which rightly made big waves at Sundance and the Berlinale, being tipped as the year’s big horror hit.
It’s also relentlessly scary. Aussie twins Danny and Michael Philippou initially gained notoriety on YouTube for their nightmarish short films produced under the handle RackaRacka. With Talk to Me they’ve made the sort of cinematic debut that dreams (nightmares) are made of, recalling Ari Aster’s Hereditary or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.
The premise is straightforward. A grieving 17-year-old, Mia (Sophia Wilde) abruptly comes across the means to communicate with spirits trapped in a kind of limbo. The ‘means’ takes the form of a human hand encased in white ceramic, which supposedly – and the film is unsettlingly vague on the details – belonged to a powerful medium. Despite knowing the risks involved, Mia grows increasingly desperate to seek closure from her mother’s suicide.
This is a brutal and shocking film, yet it makes insightful comments on an increasingly vacuous and screen-obsessed youth culture – whilst never feeling moralistic or condescending to its teenage characters. It feels contemporary in a way few horror films manage to be, and while some of its ambiguities intrigue as much as they frustrate, and the ending is sure to prove divisive, I’m hard-pressed to recall such an assured and startling piece of genre filmmaking.
Believe the hype.
The confidence the Philippou brothers direct with is evident from the film’s stunning opening. Cinematographer, Aaron McLisky, orchestrates a technically dazzling long take following a panicked young man through a packed house party as he frantically tries to locate his lacerated, traumatised brother. “Stop filming us,” he begs the crowd, illuminated starkly by camera flashes.
It would be criminal to spoil what then ensues and how it connects to the rest of the film, but the title card in my screening was accompanied by gasps of disbelief at how hard the film goes so quickly.
From here, Danny Philippou and Bill Hinzman’s script eases off a touch. We are taken through a series of quiet, measured scenes which establish that Mia is marking the anniversary of her mother’s suicide. Her relationship with her father is non-existent; the Philippous place him largely out of frame or literally out of focus in the background. She spends most of her time with surrogate 14-year-old brother Riley (Joe Bird) and his older sister Jade (Alexandra Jensen).
The script’s canniest idea is treating these fleeting spiritual encounters as a sort of viral craze, as the teens taking turns to be possessed. It’s treated as an addictive, drug-like sensation: their eyes dilate, jaws twitching. Afterwards they beat their chests, adrenaline-charged. It’s a sharp idea, raising provocative questions about chronically bored youth and the habit-forming lure of what really can hurt us.
From its opening, Talk to Me makes equally damning comments on our mean-spirited, spectacle-obsessed online landscape. One character is so embarrassed by what he does whilst possessed that he begs to have the footage deleted. Forget the demons, his parents seeing this is Hell in itself. And why do the events of the film even happen? I got the distinct impression it’s because in the ‘burbs there’s not a lot else to do.
It’s helped by the fact that the screenplay shows a genuine understanding of how young people communicate: not just what they say but the rhythms and cadence of how they say it.
When Talk to Me goes full tilt, at its midway, there’s little that can prepare you for the Philippous bone-crunching take on the possession genre. It is relentless and non-stop, the kind of horror that leaves you a little battered and bruised. There’s one sequence involving Riley that left me physically nauseous. And props to the sharp, snappy sound design from Emma Bortignon.
The creature designs are uniformly fantastic, too. The spirits are bloated and sweating. They grin nervously and crawl around like weird children, looking confused at having been summoned. One wears a tattered dress and pearls. What may be the spirit of Mia’s mother (Alexandra Steffensen) is often glimpsed in reflective surfaces and misted windows. It’s more frightening than any contrived jump scare – though they’re deployed to great effect, too.
It’s in the hallucinatory finale of Talk to Me that the storytelling falters, the non-stop carnage beginning to feel a little beyond the film’s initial focus on the power of social media and the seductive unknowability of what can hurt us. It all happens a bit too neatly, though the ending is suitably twisted. An unimaginably cruel punchline to a joke Mia – and to an extent us, the audience – weren’t in on.
But it’s all held together by Wilde’s central performance which is never anything less than totally heartrending. There’s a childlike quality to what she does, which grows with her desperation; simultaneously naïve yet always unsettlingly aware that she’s connected to something more powerful and stranger than she is. She’s the twisted, beating heart of this extraordinary and heart-pounding film.
Talk to Me – official trailer
Talk to Me releases in UK cinemas on 28 July, with Birmingham showings at the Mockingbird Cinema from 28 July and MAC from late August.