EIFF 2013: 'Mister John' review

★★★★☆
An exotic thriller ensnared within a Lynchian nightmare of confused identities, Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy's follow-up to Helen (2008), Mister John (2013), is a physically and emotionally draining tale of grief, rejection and the yearning to reinvent oneself. When Gerry Devine (Aidan Gillen) hears of the tragic news of his brother's death, he rushes out to Singapore to help with the funeral arrangements. In an odd way, he's thankful of the break, with his marriage going through a particularly tempestuous patch. Once in Singapore, Gerry finds a world of enticing riches and begins to imagine what life would be like here.

Helping his brother's wife, Kim (Zoe Tay), tie-up the loose ends of his bar business, Gerry begins to cogitate on how comfortable this foreign world actually feels, slowly slipping into his brother's former life - at first physically, then psychologically - before spiralling into an inebriated pit of discombobulation. A brooding and melancholic tale of a man's existential funk, Mister John transfers the gritty realist dynamic of British cinema and drapes it over sun-drenched vistas and squalid, neon-lit alleys, full of the promise of illicit encounters.

Venture a little deeper still and Lawlor and Molloy's latest effort reveals another side to its schizophrenic mentality - a surreal black humour and a penchant for exploring the darkly oppressive thoughts that consume Gerry's mind. Like Lynch's Lost Highway (1997) or, more recently, Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio (2012), this is an abnormal excursion into the roots of anxiety and fear; though this time the hindrance is a more personal and identifiable one. As Gerry struggles to contain an urgency to discharge his anxieties, the film's central themes manifest themselves in a tangible atmosphere of nervous delirium, climaxing with an extremely vivid, superb dream sequence back in Gerry's London home.

Detached and clinical, whilst also punctuated with a tyrannical sense of dread and despair, Lawlor and Molloy have created a tonally unhinged thriller that feels dirty and used - like a loved one returning from an obvious infidelity. Strangely rhythmic and sporadically intrusive, Mister John explores the space between reality and fabrication, culminating in a disjointed and solemn study of the grieving process. This is all further amplified by a finely-tuned performance from Game of Thrones star Gillen, whose commanding presence as the sorrow-stricken cuckold helps leads us through this intimidating fever dream.

Beautifully rendered by DoP Ole Bratt Birkeland's striking cinematography, this abstract yet compelling drama is also enhanced by a brooding, oppressive score from Stephen McKeon. Quickly (and unsurprisingly) picked up for UK distribution by world cinema specialists Artificial Eye, Lawlor and Molloy's Mister John is a deeply challenging, hugely rewarding Eastern thriller that wields an unmistakable air of discomfort over its astute study of fear, tragedy and duplicity.

The 67th Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place from 19-30 June, 2013. For more of our EIFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble

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