'Talk to Me' (2023)/Directed by Danny & Michael Philippou/Grade: C+
Sometimes you see a movie purely to see what all the fuss is about. No expectations, no bias. You just see it to support independent filmmakers, and to check out a new horror film on the big screen. Sometimes those movies meet or exceed your expectations, and sometimes they're Talk to Me (2023).
Directed by former YouTubers Michael and Danny Philippou, the movie follows Mia (Sophia Wilde), a young girl who tags along with her friend Jade (Alexandra Jenson), as well as Jade's brother Riley (Joe Bird), for a party. The main attraction is an embalmed hand that allows whoever touches it to see and speak to spirits in the great beyond, by simply uttering the phrase 'talk to me'. You can then say 'I let you in' to allow the spirit to enter you, but you need to have someone yank the hand off after sixty seconds, or risk the spirit staying in you forever.
This is great fun to the kids at first, but when Mia lets Riley use the hand against Jade's objections, the resulting encounter goes horrifyingly, violently wrong, the consequences eventually upending Mia's life entirely.
As hinted before, I saw this picture due to the rapidly spreading online hype, because it was an independent horror film, a directorial debut, and an A24 release, a company that's distributed three of my favorite horror films: Hereditary (2018), Midsommar (2019), and X (2022). From the beginning, I was left feeling simultaneously disturbed and cold. The opening displays a horrific incident that leaves one young man dead, and his brother with a back injury. However, throughout most of the rest of the movie, there is no attempt to explain these characters' connection to our main ensemble, or the rest of the story altogether. It only gets an explanation in the third act, which by then was way too late for me to care.
That's just one issue, which Talk to Me has a lot of. The characters are very much paper-thin, with everyone lacking a defined identity. Who's Jade? Who's Mia? Who's Riley? As I watched the film, even as the movie established the characters' connections to one another, I never got a sense of who anyone was. Mia has a chilling backstory involving her late mother that is given to us in fragmented pieces, but that's development of her past, not her personality. Even her fractured relationship with her father Max (Marcus Johnson) following the loss leaves little impact, because it's given equally minuscule time in the edit.
I also do not feel the ending really resolves anything. Happy or bleak, an ending should feel like the story has definitively found a resolution. Sometimes, an ambiguous ending can work, like in Inception (2010) or The Wrestler (2008), because the characters have nevertheless had a complete arc. But here, the movie seems to signal that a resolution has been decided on- a very dark one- and I scratched my head afterwards, confused about what the movie wanted to say, or why it mattered for Mia.
Additionally, when an encounter with this hand inevitably goes awry, it goes awry. In fact, the dire consequences of it are so unflinchingly grisly that I had to cover my eyes. I'm usually not deterred by gore; see the previous three A24 properties I mentioned. But the impact of the violence, hammered home by the special effects, the sound design, and the fact that the worst of it happens to a child, felt deeply wrong to me.
The only positives I could find here, and what kept me from giving it a lower grade, were the cinematography by Aaron McLisky, and the Philippou brothers' staging and blocking of scenes. All three gentlemen know exactly how to use focus, the positioning of actors, and when and how to move their camera, in order to create and sustain tension. As a result, while I didn't care at all about who things were happening to, I admired the film's technical skill.
Talk to Me is not a film I see leaving a major impact on the horror genre. It is not well-structured, its characters aren't fleshed out enough, and it's too cruel towards its main kid character. That it is commendably well-crafted on a technical level and a staging level leaves me hoping these directors have a bright future ahead of them. One in which they make more complete and investing films than this.