Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Movie Review (Berlinale 2024): ‘Cuckoo’ is Not What You Think

Director: Tilman Singer
Writer: Tilman Singer
Stars: Hunter Schafer, Jessica Henwick, Dan Stevens

Synopsis: A 17-year-old, American girl named Gretchen moves into a resort in the German Alps with her father and his new family. On top of the discomfort she feels being away from home and her conflicted relationship with her mute half-sister, Gretchen starts to feel that something isn’t right at the resort.

Writer-director Tilman Singer (2018’s Luz) wastes no time introducing us to the protagonists of his second feature. When Cuckoo begins, we’re placed in a car with 17-year-old Gretchen’s (Hunter Schafer) dysfunctional family – or rather, the family she’s left with, after she has had to leave the U.S. and move to a resort in the German Alps with her estranged father Luis (Marton Csokas), his current wife Beth (Jessica Henwick), and their mute 8-year-old daughter Alma (Mila Lieu). Soon, we meet the owner of said resort, the disquietingly cordial Mr. König (Dan Stevens), for whom Gretchen’s father is supposed to design a new set of buildings.

Luis and Beth feel a special connection with this place, since that’s where they had their honeymoon years before. As Luis, Beth, and Mr. König start to reminisce about those times, everything would appear to be normal on the surface. But there’s something we can’t quite shake off about this seemingly idyllic holiday destination, where time seems to move at a different pace and some of the guests experience eerie health issues that always involve the same, inexplicable symptoms. Gretchen’s family moves into one of the cabins, and Alma’s own health quickly deteriorates, which only makes Mr. König more interested in her, his apparent kindness becoming more disturbing with each visit.

Meanwhile, Mr. König suggests that Gretchen start working at the resort’s shop, where being around people might help cheer her up. But that’s when she realizes that something really isn’t right, as she soon starts experiencing visions and strange time loops, along with hearing noises she can’t explain. One night, as she’s cycling back to her cabin after work, she’s chased by a hooded figure that only she can see, and she realizes that her own life is at stake. Not only that, but she has never felt more alone, as no one seems to believe her and even her own mother isn’t answering her calls. And so, there’s nothing left to do for our resourceful hero but to take matters into her own hands and try to get to the bottom of this mystery on her own – until some unexpected help arrives.

Cuckoo is an incredibly well-crafted film. Cinematographer Paul Faltz’s stunning visuals have us immersed in its narrative from the very first scenes, conveying all the eeriness of the resort and the vastness of the nature around it in a disquietingly fascinating way. The score (Simon Waskow) and sound design (Jonas Lux) are just as effective at building a very specific atmosphere that has us both intrigued and disturbed, particularly when Gretchen and the other residents experience these time loops, ensuring our eyes are glued to the screen at all times.

As Cuckoo’s final girl, Hunter Schafer is phenomenal. She imbues her character with such personality that we are on her side at all times, delivering a horror heroine who might be confused and scared at times, but who’s never helpless despite the life threatening things that happen to her and her family. Opposite her, Dan Stevens is superb in a role that feels tailor made for him. This clearly disturbed resort owner is able to both get on our nerves and make us laugh hysterically, often at the same time, and Stevens inhabits him with apparent ease and impressive attention to detail. Even the way he pronounces Gretchen’s name is irritating, and his most unhinged scenes are hysterically funny.

Besides Schafer and Stevens, the entire cast is fantastic in a film where each character is made memorable not only by their quirks but also by their humanity. Mila Lieu impresses as the 8-year-old Alma, delivering one of the most emotional scenes of the movie with facial expressions alone. Sydney LaFaire plays an eccentric guest to perfection, while Marton Csokas and Kalin Morrow, whose roles are best left unspoiled, leave a mark despite the little screen time they have.

So what is it, exactly, that doesn’t work in Cuckoo? Sadly, it’s the story itself. Although the central mystery feels intriguing at first, when we uncover the truth, it becomes not only difficult to believe, but also a little ridiculous, given how many things about it make very little sense. Some characters’ motivations are thin at best, and a confrontation occurs at the end that feels so forced and filled with clichés that everyone was laughing at my screening; I’m sure that wasn’t the effect Singer intended it to have. It’s also the reason why, despite the amount of blood and some effective jump scares, Cuckoo isn’t scary in the slightest.

Yet, at the same time, the film is also quite the contradiction. While Cuckoo is  certainly not what Singer wanted it to be, since there are so many issues with its tone, narrative structure, and also the very premise itself, it’s also never not an enjoyable movie. It’s entertaining from start to finish, with gorgeous visuals, immersive sound design and great performances that keep us hooked, and a series of very strong moments that really deliver the emotion. Some are intentional and will surprise us, like the moment I found myself sobbing during a very moving scene; others – the more comedic ones – aren’t, but does it really matter in the end? 

To me, Cuckoo is neither a horror film nor a psychological thriller. It’s more of a film about sisterly love, and how finding your family can help you grow into the kind of person you want to be and ultimately overcome all the horror in your life. If you’re expecting a scary movie with an intriguing mystery at its center, you’ll probably be disappointed by Cuckoo. But if you go in with no expectations and simply let it work its magic, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in what is ultimately a coming of age story, and a film that might even become one of your go-to comfort movies in the future.

Grade: B-

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