Atmospheric Tension and Bleakness Are Center Stage in ‘Gwen’ (FILM REVIEW)


It’s a funny thing, evil. That which humans have attributed to any many of ghost, demon, or specter since humans have had the capability of attributing things to anything is usually the handiwork of man. None of god’s creations are as capable of malice as his supposed greatest, and evil is rarely is at home as it is in our hands.

Still, the horror stories we tell each other tend to rely on our old scapegoats. Demons and ghosts run rampant, terrorizing humans and giving audiences a good fright. They’re as fun as they are dismissable. That which does not exist cannot hurt us, and so we know that we are safe.

Gwen, the debut feature from writer/director William McGregor, does not give us that luxury. This is an almost irredeemably bleak film that uses the lexicon of horror to tell us a tale of evil that is not so easily put out of mind. It’s wonderfully dark and often beautiful, but the oppressive nihilism of the story gives it the narrowest of audience windows to slither through.

We follow the lives of the titular Gwen (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), her mother Elen (Maxine Peake), and her sister Mari (Jodie Innes) as they try to get by on their small farm in Wales. With Gwen’s father at war, the family struggles to make ends meet. To make matters worse, the unscrupulous owner of a nearby quarry, Mr. Wynne (Mark Lewis Jones) has eyes on the farm to further his business ends. Meanwhile, Elen is struck by an illness that makes the townsfolk wary of the family. In the face of all this, young Gwen must try to find a way to keep the lives of her family together.

McGregor builds his narrative slowly, using stark imagery to bring the audience into the world of Wales during the industrial revolution. It’s hard not to immediately love the family with their small herd of sheep and garden where they grow vegetables to sell at market. Almost as soon as they’re introduced, however, McGregor slowly chips away at the sanctity of their home, forcing us to endure the building horror of their reality.

That horror, of course, comes at the hands of men. This is a tale of greed vs. subsistence, and how the power of one’s greed can force evil on to the backs of another. The slow build of tension plays with the standards of supernatural horror; so much so that you aren’t entirely sure whether there’s some greater evil at play here. But no. The only evil is man.

It’s vicious in its melancholy and cruel in its hopelessness. The weight of the film weighs on you the longer it continues, and nearly becomes too much. It’s by virtue of its short run time of 84 minutes that the oppressive sadness doesn’t crush us. It’s a testament to McGregor’s skills as both a filmmaker and storyteller that he’s able to pull this off but it’s almost too much.

Still, fans of dark movies will find much to appreciate in Gwen. Movies have rarely been so unendingly dark and it plays with the common tropes of horror well enough to make it interesting. While at times it can veer towards too slow, McGregor’s long game is worth the ride, so long as you can take it.

Gwen is now available on VOD platforms.

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