Eli (2019)

SEPTEMBER 30, 2020

GENRE: GHOST
SOURCE: STREAMING (NETFLIX)

For a while, I was having fun on Twitter by posting the dumbest/weirdest trivia I'd find on the IMDb, highlighting the people who seem to think it's fascinating that three people from any random movie also appeared in comic book movies before or after, or that both leads of 47 Meters Down have played someone named Rebecca (except one of them it was spelled Rebekah, making it even less interesting). But this one that I found on Eli is possibly my favorite ever, because it's clearly a botched attempt to remove the trivia for being untrue (which requires an explanation), so now it just appears like someone arguing with himself and submitting it anyway. It's kind of beautiful in a way.

As for the movie itself, it's pretty good. As with Sinister 2, I was perhaps expecting too much given that it's from Ciaran Foy - the director of Citadel, a terrific movie that I am increasingly suspecting was a fluke. Nothing wrong with that, by the way; many filmmakers have knocked it out of the park with their first go and never lived up to that seeming promise (Bryan Bertino, Bustillo & Maury, and the Blair Witch guys all come to mind), but that one classic is exactly one more than many filmmakers never manage, ever, in their entire careers. Luckily, here Foy is working with an original story instead of coming into someone else's playground, so while it's not exactly a great movie, at least it's not doubling up on the disappointment (for a recap: I quite loved the original Sinister, but the sequel... not so much).

The title refers to our young hero, who suffers from an extreme allergy to basically everything in the world and needs to be kept in a hazmat suit whenever he goes anywhere as the slightest exposure causes him to go into what looks like an asthma attack x100, with his skin turning colors along with the usual "can't breathe" stuff. Thankfully, those days might soon be behind him - his parents (Kelly Reilly and Max Martini) are taking him to a medicial facility run by Lili Taylor, where she has an experimental treatment that they believe can help him. The procedure is dangerous though, as it essentially involves purposely setting off attacks to... science, science, blah blah blah, basically pummel the body with the stuff so the body can build up its defenses and expunge it, more or less.

Naturally this is terrifying for the kid and he struggles with the treatments, and while his mom is fairly sympathetic to his pain, the dad is oddly standoffish about the whole thing, seemingly not caring at all at times. As a dad it was heartbreaking to watch Eli beg for his dad to help only for the man to walk away or help the nurses hold him down, even as the horror movie stuff increases. Because while the treatment is griefing him plenty, he's also haunted by ghosts that start off doing usual movie ghosty things like drawing on fogged windows, but eventually start dragging him around the halls and tossing around his furniture. Taylor and his parents, naturally, assume he's just doing these things to act out and get them to stop the treatments. But he starts to wonder if the ghosts are actually former patients who Taylor failed to save.

So it kind of works like one of those "Are they crazy or is there something really supernatural going on?" movies, except it's "Are the ghosts trying to hurt him, or help him?", because they're so clearly really there. Then there's the question of why his dad is acting so weird, and why Taylor clams up when asked about her previous patients (they are the only ones there at the time, due to the need to keep the house contaminent free*), and - as a little bonus - whether or not a girl who lives nearby (Sadie "Max" Sink from Stranger Things, because by law all new horror movies featuring kids has to have at least on ST cast member) and visits him at his window is real or just another ghost.

With all these mysteries, it's no surprise that the movie feels a bit like they're just throwing random stuff at the wall hoping something sticks, because we naturally can't really find out what's really going on until the climax. And I must admit, the reveal is both a surprise and kind of awesome (it technically belongs in another genre, but that's a spoiler), howver getting there asks for a bit too much of the audience's patience. Part of the problem is that everyone but Eli is aware of what will be revealed later, but can't tell him (read: the audience), so everyone has to act vaguely throughout the movie, never being overtly sinister or threatening, and yet clearly 'up to something', which gets frustrating after a while because you just want something, anything, to be clear. Perhaps if Reilly's character was completely in the dark (she seems to only know a few things) and the film unfolded from her POV instead of the kid's it might have been a more enticing journey to take, but instead her behavior is just another mystery for Eli to sort of solve.

But for a while, the "what is really happening here?" mystery sustains, and Foy does a fine job with establshing the locale and playing out a few of its scares. He also gets really good performances from his cast, nearly all of whom have to appear as possible villains and saviors with every line and expression - not an easy line to walk for an entire movie. And it's not particularly gory, but there's one death near the end that Jason or Michael might be jealous of (hilariously, the Netflix rating says it's "MA - language", so it was even more unexpected as I wasn't prepped for any overt violence), plus a cool visual involving some particularly shaped bodies on fire.

So it starts good and ends kinda awesome in a "hey, at least they're not settling for the obvious" kind of way, but there's that pesky middle where you're mostly just stuck in a much less compelling cycle of scenes where the kid freaks out, tries to escape, and is convinced to stay. Maybe that's when you check your phone or take your time getting some more snacks or something? If you're gone for less than ten minutes I guarantee you won't miss anything you haven't basically seen and/or won't see again. But be sure to pay close attention to the end credits for the clumsy way Netflix shoehorned their name in there after buying the film from Paramount (who reportedly couldn't figure out how to market it, though I think the trailer is just fine and doesn't tip its hat, though it naturally spoils the best scares), basically just dropping their name above Paramount's on one of the cards, not particularly evenly. It's hilarious.

What say you?

*Bit of a spoiler, but there's a moment that seems like a goof early on involving how people are instructed to enter the house that, once all the pieces are in place, might actually be an intentional clue to what's really going on.

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