This stylish psychological thriller is a million miles away from co-director Adam Green’s breakout splatter hit “Hatchet”, but with its sparky, well-crafted script, ably built around several compelling and often touching performances - particularly by young lead female actor Amber Tamblyn - “Spiral” leaves a favourable lasting impression, foregoing gore, guts and the modern trend for cruelty and torture for a beautifully rendered character study that builds slowly but goes from light to perversely dark in the blink of an eye, and is all the more affecting for getting you to like and care about its protagonists before it takes a turn into more threatening territory. You could probably watch this knowing nothing about it, and for most of its run time believe it to be a quirky offbeat romantic fable with a slightly Lynchian sense of humour. Needless to say, there is much more going on beneath the surface.
Co-director, writer and actor Joel Moore (better known these days, one suspects, for his role in “Avatar”) plays stuttering, gangly social misfit Mason. Prone to panic attacks and too shy even to speak to any of his fellow workers, lonely Mason spends his days in a thankless job at an insurance company call centre, trying to sell insurance deals he barely understands to uninterested clients over the phone. His only friend is his former college pal and now boss, Berkeley (Zachary Levi). Berkeley regales the shuffling loner with lewd tails of his noncommittal love life, offering ‘male advice’ on how to get ahead with the opposite sex that is probably not that wise in light of his love ’em and leave ’em attitude. Berkeley is a self-centred, rather superficial sort who doesn't really notice too much that’s going on around him; he certainly doesn't take Mason’s personality dysfunction all that seriously and, in his way, he’s just as isolated as his introverted friend, despite his gregariousness.
Mason’s life goes on much as usual, each day blending into the next. Then one morning a new and rather pretty blonde salesgirl he’s never seen before sits next to him to eat her lunch on the bench outside the office, and turns out to be a bubbly, compulsively friendly type called Amber (Amber Tamblyn), who continues to chatter amiably about herself despite receiving nothing much back in the way of conversation from a shell-shocked Mason, who can barely manage much more than a gurgling stutter in reply. This becomes a daily ritual though, and soon Mason begins to look forward to these lunch time meetings, and little by little, in his own halting way, he opens up. A delicate friendship is gradually established. Amber is a sweet-natured girl who loves old movies; she doesn't know too many other people in the area though and is drawn to Mason's artistic nature, having first noticed the impromptu pencil sketch he was making at their first meeting. She buys him a present: some bus tickets, so that they can go on day trips together; he repays the compliment by taking her to a cinematic screening of one of her favourite films - "It's A Wonderful Life". It turns out that Mason is also a great aficionado of jazz music, and when questioned on the subject, suddenly becomes unusually voluble and even quite eloquent and lucid. When Amber eventually visits his upper-storey studio apartment, she's amazed to find it stuffed with his own artistic portraiture, as well as painted postcard-sized reproductions of his favourite jazz album covers. Amber gradually becomes Mason's muse, posing for portraits in his apartment. But Mason has certain compulsions about his art. Everything has to be done in a set order. Nevertheless, their relationship continues to grow and eventually develops into a romantic one. But, as with any love newly in bloom, there are still discoveries to be made about each other, and in this case they throw a threatening shadow over the nascent union. Soon, neither party is quite sure that they can fully trust the other after all. And this is but a prelude to some very tense and horrific revelations indeed.
Moore and Green have crafted a fiendishly clever little low budget indie thriller here, more in the Hitchcock mould than most modern examples, which relies on nothing more than good old fashioned virtues such as interesting characters and a suspenseful plot to draw you in; but it's also full of quirky little details that subliminally suggest something not quite right about this supposedly tender little tale of misfit love in the big city. The production design inside Mason's apartment gives it that edgy Edward Hopper look: all bright colours and bland everyday furnishings, yet with desolate-looking figures lost in the midst of them. This is another facet that tends to suggest we're in a strange region of David Lynch country, but the story is more in the "Psycho" area. Moore is often teetering on the edge of parody in his portrayal of such an extreme figure, taking the neurotic Norman Bates mannerisms of the character to the edge of their acceptability. But opposite a lovely performance from Amber Tamblyn, who conveys vulnerability and good-hearted optimism without it ever becoming sickly or cloying (even to this old cynic), the combination becomes compelling and I genuinely didn't know where this story was going right up till the end. The plot does play upon some common cliches that have since become standard elements in thrillers that deal with disturbed, delusional characters - but manages to subvert our expectations in the final minutes, even then; leaving one with a bitter-sweet and disturbing little film that deserves to be given more of a fanfare than it will probably get.
Universal Pictures release "Spiral" in the UK on a bare bones disc, coded for region 2 (I'm not including the forced trailers as extras!) as part of its new Indi VISION label. The transfer and audio serve the film's stylish cinematography and melancholy jazz soundtrack pretty well though - and I heartily recommend it.