Producers: Kim Coates, Dana Abraham, Jazz Brar and Trevor Smith Director: Rouzbeh Heydari Screenplay: Dana Abraham Cast: Dana Abraham, Kim Coates, Brenna Coates, Brit MacCrae, Erika Swayze, René Escobar Jr., Stephen Tracey and Lauren Howe Distributor: Momentum/Entertainment One
Dana Abraham’s vanity project begins and ends as a slasher movie—sort of—but aims also to be a psychological thriller, a character study of a disturbed man, and a drama of domestic derangement. It’s not surprising that it gets tangled up attempting to juggle all the different threads of plot and perspective, and winds up more confusing than illuminating—as well as thoroughly unsatisfying.
Abraham stars in his own script as Clay Amani, the CEO of a firm called Tempest Technology who’s promoting its IPO. He’s introduced preparing to go on a program on a cable business channel, with sinister-looking Denver Kane (Kim Coates) whispering warnings into his ear. Clay is obviously on edge, and when buffeted by tough questions by the interviewer about his company’s financial fragility and his own possible removal he has an on-air meltdown.
In what might be occurring prior to or after this disaster—a session with his therapist Brenna Coates) intervenes, which refers to his trauma—he’s found at his mansion awaiting a reunion with his long-estranged family—older brothers James (Stephen Tracey) and Benny (René Escobar Jr.) and the latter’s wife Clarissa (Brit MacCrae) and daughter Blair (Erika Swayze). It’s not a pleasant event. James and Benny are both hostile, thuggish types who obviously bullied him as a kid, and are openly resentful of his success and lack of support for them. There’s also a strong suggestion that Clay and Clarissa had, and perhaps still have, feelings for one another—such, at least, is the suggestion of Denver, who watches over the proceedings with malicious glee. Over dinner James badgers Clay for an investment in his club, otherwise left vague, while studious Blair gets little attention from her parents.
Things grow more fraught as the evening passes, and the morning is no better. James is attacked while walking outside at night by a shadowy fighter wielding a pitchfork—presumably the same person we’ve seen lumbering through the house with a hatchet, Jack Torrance style, at the start—and a fight breaks out between Benny and Clay during a tennis match, when Benny accuses him of lusting after Clarissa and orders him to stay away from Blair. Later, while rummaging through the house, Benny finds a cache of photos from their youth and documents detailing adoptions and deaths—some about himself—before he’s knocked unconscious and tied up in the basement, awaiting a grisly fate. Clarissa grows anxious about his disappearance, especially after Clay begins treating her and Blair as if they were his own family. When they resist, Clay lashes out.
What’s going on here? Well, Clay is obviously having some sort of breakdown, which Abraham, hardly the most subtle of actors, indicates from the start with his shy, hesitant manner and habit of finishing every line with a nervous giggle, and the periodic interruptions with scenes of his therapy sessions, in which the doctor prods him to face—and as she puts it, kill—the phobias he’s been suppressing, reinforce. In one sequence he’s depicted as a catatonic patient in a hospital where he’s being treated by the therapist and tormented by a cruel nurse (played in a double role by Howe), but that’s apparently just a terrifying nightmare.
His response to treatment apparently consists of the events of the family reunion, though whether they’ve preceded the sessions or come after them is unclear, as is whether they’re real or hallucinatory. That’s also a question about Denver, who may just be a personification or projection of Clay’s madness. (Kane is revealed to have been the father—or adoptive father—of the three brothers, and always preferred Clay to the others, whom he beat while letting Clay go scot-free; one of the documents Benny finds is his death certificate. Of course, Benny finds his own death certificate too, so who knows what’s meant to be real?)
As directed by Rouzbeh Heydari, “Neon Lights” has a few interesting touches. One is the lighting scheme in the rooms to which Clay assigns each member of his visiting family—one orange, one lilac, and so forth—which presumably has something to do with the title, and gives cinematographer Dmitry Lopatin the opportunity to have some fun. (It may remind you of what Richard Brooks did in “The Brothers Karamazov,” though there the hues clearly represented emotional states, while they seem arbitrary here.) Apart from the increasingly over-the-top Abraham and the smoothly sinister elder Coates, the performances are no more than adequate, while the editing by Shane R. Preston and Heydari can’t camouflage the jagged nature of the narrative (though it’s doubtful they wanted to). Meanwhile Josh Skerritt’s score uses a repetitive rhythmic scheme that mimics early John Carpenter without achieving a similarly unsettling result.
While exhibiting a few interesting touches, this is a would-be thriller whose ambitions are undercut by serious flaws in structure and execution. It will leave you scratching you head not only about what’s happened but why you bothered watching to the enigmatic end.