Saturn’s Rings: A Freeform Discussion

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As far as the multi-layered “mind-bender” genre goes, writer/director Jake Burgess’ debut SATURN’S RINGS is a perfect case for study.  Situated on the spectrum in the exact center—let’s set on one end Christopher Smith’s masterpiece TRIANGLE, with its perfectly calibrated, more-added-on-each-rewatch, exceptionalness and at the other end set Ota Richter’s infamous 1983 film SKULLDUGGERY with its…well, its whatever you want to call it—Burgess’ film has ample instances of high quality, flashes of downright first-feature inspiration, as well as some head-scratching moments/choices which it is difficult to tell if are due to over-ambition or under-execution.

To put that more simply: it’s a film that is good fun to watch, with its atmospheric mix of precision and ephemera, but a film which, moreso, is a nerdy hoot to chat about after.  Indeed, I hope it would one day have the cult status not of an Evil Dead or a Pi, but rather of films such as Anna Campion’s LOADED, Seve Schelenz’s SKEW, or Adam Watstein’s INVISIBLE—easy to and often entirely written off, but richer than more “established cult” cinema features tend to be, as far as deeper merits (true cult films, in that when you mention them…no one has heard of them except the few folks who dig them the most.)

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I’m free with what some will call “spoilers” in my discussion following—because this is a discussion more than a review—so if you desire to watch the film uninfluenced (as all films should be) please bail out now and return after the 78 minutes of it have elapsed.

Everything in Saturn’s Rings, to this viewer, is Pro-and-Con, combined (Pon? Cro?)  Style, performance, cinematography, plot, trajectory—an exact mix of ‘Nice!’ and ‘Er…what?’ to give it its middle point on the continuum discussed, above.

For example: We start with a voiceover meant to give us a Wrap-Story feel: Melissa (Catherine Tait) al la Edgar Poe et al. assuring us she is sane and this story she is telling is what truly happened. And from this device we enter into a back-and-forth-in-time (via emboldened title cards stating 4 Months Earlier, Present Day, 2 Months Earlier etc.) sort of a film that seems to not yet feature the opening narrator.

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Now: I must quickly add that the first leg of the film was earnestly engrossing in all the right ways.  Through to the first big “shocker” (and proto-twist of what soon became a puzzle-box which seemed a tad as-confused-with-itself-as-the-rest-of-us) the film does what I passionately say a good horror/thriller film (or indeed, a film of any kind) should do: made me kind of not want the “more weird stuff” to start, made me a tad annoyed when “the real story” began—made me just dig the people on screen and their ordinary lives and their pacing and their performances (think the opening long leg of WOLF CREEK or THE STRANGERS, as an example).  Admittedly, this leg of the film does this so well, that it was not until the voice over from Melissa returns at the film’s end that I remembered that was how the film opened!

Pro to all of this: cleanly stylized, the film slickly lets us know its beats, its performance style, gets us acclimated to its photography as we are situated into a thinky mode (and time-bending-with-title-cards is always fun, come on!). Con—which we’ll get to a bit more, throughout: the film presents such a solid and excellent set up for so long, that the eventual turns away from “promised plotline”—stylistically, structurally, and story-wise—honestly come off as jarring and (to my mind) kind of regrettable.

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Let me expand on that last comment, though, so it is not misunderstood:  regrettable, because, to me, Saturn’s Rings has, inside of it, two films that would have been perfect in and of themselves, but that do not gel when purposed into the kind of Ambiguity-Machine the actual film evolves into.  That is: this is a film that should have just picked one thing to be and been it (some things are better without twists, just tense, original journeys A to B.)

The First Possible Film is the film exactly as being presented (minus the opening narration).  Atmospheric foreboding by way of unique, unforced, and captivating performances from the leads (Ryan Paldus, especially, as Stew, Travis MacCarl as Eric bringing equal nuance) slow paced conversations, the retelling of a disquieting dream. The two take a lovers’ trip into the woods. Then, suddenly the truly confusing (but naturalistically unsettling—the good sort of confusing) bolt of violence as Stew brutally murders Eric.  Cut to: Stew heading into the same woods with a hitherto unintroduced character, Jimmy (Isaac Brown), the reason for this venture not made specific until a good amount of time further has been spent with the two of them. The reason? To dispose of the body of Eric!

Marvelous. I’m in. The appropriate ‘Hmn’ and/or ‘Oh shit’ is elicited from me joyously.

This is not a Possible Film, though, but an Actual…and our Actual Film’s structure then tweaks.  Full screen overlays of title cards (again, always good times!) proclaim Day 1, Day 2 etc. while meanwhile we (somewhat disorientatingly—indeed, once again I tended to forget this storyline until it would show up again) cut to scenes of Melissa (our opening narrator, remember her?) discussing—very obliquely—things with her therapist (Austin Amos). I admit, these scenes did not work for me, in that the oddity in them felt the most unnatural, forced even (“Have you been taking your pills?” etc etc).

Nor did the related scenes of worry from Melissa’s family (Shari Nicholl and Tony Burgess)—oh yes, by the way, Melissa is the sister of Eric (Eric mentioned a sister, earlier) and is also the girlfriend of Jimmy—yes, that Jimmy, the one who is currently off with Stew helping to dispose of Eric’s body on the strength of them being childhood pals. A timeline is often belabordly discussed by these characters (“that was seven days ago” “we were going out only for like a week” “isn’t it odd that happened right when you started seeing me?” etc) but hell if it did anything but make me lose narrative cohesion (the wrong kind of confusion set in—something felt like it was being shoe-horned and I began to worry for the Possible Film I was really, really liking).

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Back in the woods, our First (still exceptional, at this point) Possible Film continues with promise.  Stew oddly relates to Jimmy the exact dream his former lover (now murder victim) Eric told him and very cool seeds of tension are sewn. Me?  I was delighted because I figured “I’ve got this film pegged—now Jimmy is going to kill Stew, just as Stew killed Eric; we will then cut to Jimmy inviting someone else into the woods, telling the dream, the someone else killing Jimmy as Jimmy had killed Stew, as Stew had killed Eric and on and on in a vicious, tight little nightmare circle.”

But no.  And a Good No. At least for a moment our lost-in-the-woods story did something that seldom happens to this reviewer—it genuinely, pleasantly surprised me!  For who shows up, lost on the path (though seeming unperterbed) but the dead man, Eric!—unwounded, seemingly not recognizing his killer/lover Stew.  And Eric tags along—hanging in the background as Stew and Jimmy wonder how they are going to dispose of a body with this witness around (Stew not giving Jimmy the skinny on the fact that Eric IS the person he killed).

Terrific! We’re in a slick, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, self-contained logic universe of the macabre. This Second Possible movie—Stew and Jimmy hiking toward Eric’s body with Eric looming in the background chatting with them—is kind of even better than the First Possible Movie (to my taste, anyway).

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Until the Actual Film keeps insisting on leaving the woods in order to flesh out (or not, as is the case) this third, over-arcing storyline of our sometimes-narrator Melissa.  The writing in these sections continues to be (I say this without mean-spirit) rather crudely perplexing (these scenes, even down to how they are shot, honestly seem to belong in another film) because the film has not given us enough of a sense that Melissa is going to logically tie in for the scenes of her roaming the streets, entering a run-down building to the strains of trigger music to work seamlessly. I squinted through these scenes—as well as through those of it being revealed that Eric’s family consider him missing but are reluctant to call the police, though they then organize a community search party, and also through the scenes of Melissa telling her therapist she has been having the same dream we have heard about before (from Eric and Stew), only in her dream the “man with a blurry face” (referenced in the other dreams) is said to be her boyfriend (Jimmy)!

This is not helped by the scenes of being lost in the woods becoming increasingly puzzling and illogical. To the point that thinking this is a film about people actually lost in the woods with it in mind to dispose of a dead body (with or without a murder victim tagging along with them!) strains credulity.

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But—ah—Saturn’s Rings is NOT really about that. But—alas—in the worst way.  Because it being about that was not only awesome, but is what made every stylistic choice until the point we realize it’s not about that—from pacing, to time-jump, to title-card—work!  So when the BIG REVEAL arrives, it is more of a gnarl than a revelation. It becomes clear that what we were shown, previous, was not artfully arranged to serve as double-meaninged, but that we were, as audience, just downright hoodwinked. No, we were not confused due to being shown events that, through deftness of craft, we did not glean the full import of yet, but confused due to being manipulated, top to bottom (from script, to film style/language, to who is interacting with who!)—the film telling us “This is what is happening here” with no reason not to think it so, then abruptly telling us “Nevermind, it’s not what’s happening—this is! Bwahaha!”

That is: on second viewing, none of the scenes in the film make one lick of sense—what the characters are saying, what their concerns are, how they interact (indeed, even WHO is interacting—I need to stress that a bit!). And the film as a dubious “these are souls in limbo” sort of genre piece has the least cohesion of all! (and that’s not even actually the thing of the film, we learn, due to its then continuing to a final dinner table scene between Eric, Melissa and their parents)

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But, before I sound bullying, let me just say that right up to the BANG! moment the film had been leading toward, there is such atmosphere, energy (and some truly artful and inspired moments) in Saturn’s Rings that it is beside the point “where the film finally winds up.”  Indeed, as far as indie cinema goes, there is mountains more excellent than there is ham-fisted, here—so much so, that harping on the “plot structure” seems nitpicking to me. I do it throughout this piece, though, first and foremost because it’s what the film is asking to have examined. Secondly, I’m just kind of a structure, puzzle-box man, so when my allotted Two Big Allowances For Style Reasons (I give these to all mind-benders) are surpassed, I get a bit pissy—and Saturn’s Rings starts racking up “but if we say” “but if we say” “but if we say” moments so quickly in its last leg I almost wondered if it was parodying the genre it had started out as a superb, restrained example of.

People are going to ask, rightfully:

“So is this what happened? Stew met Eric at a party. Stew and Eric went out into the woods where Eric killed Stew. Meanwhile, Jimmy, for non-specific reasons, killed himself.  Then—for whatever reason—the ghost of Jimmy and the ghost of Stew went hiking in the woods to bury the body of Eric—who was never dead.  And while the ghost of Stew-who-thinks-he-killed-Eric-even-though-Eric-killed-him and Jimmy are hiking, they meet what Stew-who-thinks-he-killed-Eric thinks is Eric’s ghost (or something). And they are all thirsty and arguing about water and keeping secrets and what have you…though they are ghosts (or think each other are…or don’t). And then they find the body—which it turns out is Stew—and the ghost of Stew and the ghost of Jimmy disappear—leaving just Eric looking at Stew’s body (Stew…who he killed, but seems to not remember having done).  Then, I guess, Eric hides Stew’s body (he remembers he killed him?) and is found by the rescue team, Stew reported as missing. Melissa gives Jimmy’s suicide note (she found that, somehow, I forgot to mention) to her therapist, who seems rather nonplussed that the authorities haven’t been informed. Eric and Melissa realize they have been having the same dream…then Eric (is it here he remembers?) decides to tell everyone what he did (killed Stew…I think). Was that how it went?”

And that is glossing over some other points that add spices to the sauce I cannot find cogent reasons for.  And they are questions a film purporting to be a twisty piece of mind-fuckery has to answer.  And, as I say, allowances always have to be given in such films, from A PURE FORMAILTY to SHATTERED to IDENTITY to SIXTH SENSE to everything in between.

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But Saturn’s Rings…asks a few too many allowances to not deserve a bit of a dressing down, script-wise.

BUT, let us all remember: Danny Boyle’s debut SHALLOW GRAVE (a personal favorite of mine) has more ridiculous illogic and plot holes buckshotting it than most any thriller script ever penned!…but who gives a shit, because it has a style that works.

And what delights me so much about Saturn’s Rings is—naw, it didn’t get to Shallow Grave level…but fuck if it didn’t almost, at times.  That there is such a clear vein of excellence to tap, and that the poppy, individualistic flourishes far overshadow the deadweight of the nit-and-grit of making a feature length vessel float, makes Saturn’s Rings, in my estimation, a more important touchstone for indie filmmaking than an It Follows (I mean, as long as we’re talking about racking up ludicrous plot holes, let’s pick on that one, eh?)

Fantastic performance from the leads (had the movie actually been the First Possible Film, as I discuss, these would have been twice as exceptional). Marvelous photography throughout the opening act.  Two tremendously well-delivered monologues (Eric relating the long version of the dream; Stew relating the memory of the piece of paper his mother kissed while sitting around the fire).  A few inspired, odd-but-in-the-right-way, choices of music insertion (most notably when Jimmy collapses due to dehydration). Little moments such as the radio giving the news report being interrupted by a faucet being turned on at just the right instant to drown out what seems the crucial bit of information. All marvelous, first feature zazz (the reasons people love the films they love when first getting into cinema)—moments, frankly, that will be recalled, and fondly, long after the plot (and nitpicks of it) are naturally forgotten.

In fact, Saturn’s Rings is exactly what an indie feature should be. The film is like the old story about the man who claims he can juggle twenty balls at once, takes an armful of small, colorful rubber spheres, has everyone gather around, and then launches the balls into the air all at once, positioning hands as though to manipulate them on the way down…but instead just lets them hit the floor and bounce erratically in all directions, the audience left too delighted to really be miffed or point out that “that man didn’t juggle at all.”

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