Producers: Carol Anne Watts, Johnny Remo, Henry Penzi and Sasha Yelaun Director: Adam Sigal Screenplay: Adam Sigal Cast: Thomas Mann, Rosa Salazar, Shane West, Scout Taylor-Compton, Vernon Davis, Cassandra Gava and John Malkovich Distributor: Saban Films
While intriguing from moment to moment, as a whole “Chariot” is at once opaque and obvious. In its determination to be different it becomes kind of obnoxious.
Adam Sigal’s script might be unintelligible were it not for the fact that in the prominently-displayed title of the first of its seven “chapters” it announces that the story is about reincarnation. (This prologue, set in 1840 and called “The Reincarnation Station,” has little to do with what follows in narrative terms, but at least it tells you how to interpret the “modern” tale that encompasses the remaining six installments.)
That story centers on Harrison Hardy (Thomas Mann), a nervous, awkward young man who arrives at a run-down hotel in an unnamed city, where he will consult a world-famous sleep therapist about a recurrent dream—a recollection of an experience in his childhood home that he knows isn’t quite right in its details and breaks off before revealing its meaning. He immediately makes the acquaintance of a quirky fellow guest, an actress named Maria Deschaines (Rosa Salazar), who invites him to her room directly above his and confuses him by blurting out her observations, which are often faintly insulting. But Harrison finds her curiously charming, especially compared to the abrasive landlady and that weird fellow he’s glimpsed levitating across the lobby.
Eventually Harrison consults with the specialist he’s come to see, Dr. Karn (John Malkovich, sporting an eerie smile and a red fright wig he removes to reveal his bald pate only at the close). Karn questions Harrison about the dream and assures him that he has a treatment involving hypnosis that should cure the problem.
While awaiting the procedure, Harrison gets to know Maria better and goes to a party she throws. There he meets Lauren Reitz (Scout Taylor-Compton), who claims to share her body with Oliver, a nasty British guy who periodically takes it over. He also will get to know David Reece (Vernon Davis), a security guard at a facility where he’s become obsessed with mating two turtles he claims are the last of their species. Its extinction, he insists, would be a monumental tragedy.
As the film moves into its later stages—the sixth of which is titled “The Reincarnation Station II,” it introduces a few other characters, most notably Rory Calhoun (Shane West), the name presumably intended as a nod to the actor. Calhoun is some sort of businessman in league with Karn, who at one point introduces him to his double, and together they apparently abduct Maria. Luring Harrison to Calhoun’s office with her cryptic pleas for help, they then administer the treatment that does, as the final chapters indicate, cure the boy of his affliction, which Karn describes as “a glitch in the system,” by revealing—and destroying—the contents of the attic in the old homestead that was a prominent, but elusive, element in his dream.
Writer-director Adam Sigal explicitly explains the purpose behind all the strangeness Harrison has been subjected to by the movie’s close, but never indicates why such an elaborate scheme was necessary to achieve it. The reason seems to be that all the hullabaloo was designed merely to hold a perplexed audience’s interest for the duration. In the process production designer Scott Daniel, cinematographer Senda Bennet and composer Richard Patrick get the chance to create an off-putting vibe, even if they have to do it on a very meager budget, and it isn’t really editor K. Spencer Jones’s fault that things move at a snail’s pace.
The cast add to the sense of strangeness, too. Mann is adept at playing curious and scared, while Salazar exults in Maria’s oddball personality, and Scout-Thompson really chomps into Lauren’s two personas—a performance more shrill than entertaining, but what the director ordered. As for Malkovich, he does his shtick with added relish.
“Chariot” may be appreciated by viewers who appreciate peculiarity above all else, but in the end it’s a pretty feeble attempt at doing something different.