Artifice, a device or expedience to trick or deceive others. Or yourself. And it does make for a pretty cool sounding title too. I’ve always had this strange fondness and fear of films that look into the psyche of the main character. I know that’s what all good films (and other story telling medias) should do. I mean when imagery and themes and other such designs are used to weave the world of fiction and reality together. Films like Jacob’s Ladder, In the Mouth of Madness and Trainspotting, even videogames like the Silent Hill franchise, all fall into that category for me. So, upon hearing the story to Artifice I got pretty excited.
Artifice follows the story of small time actor Jacob Hynes. Jacob has starred in nothing, not really. The odd play here, the extra there, nothing that really stands out. That is until he has been accepted as the lead in a new film by acclaimed, yet heavily controversial director Howard Rulin. Rulin is a very Nicholas Winding Refn like character, in that he films what he wants, how he wants and keeps everything about his films secret. He is also asking an immense amount of work from his actors. Jacob, willing to impress, starts method acting his very unconventional role and soon gets lost within the characters. Unfortunately, playing the character doesn’t stop when the cameras aren’t rolling. And reality is feeling more and more blurred by the minute.
It’s the kind of concept I can get behind. A kind of parody, in a way, of the acting methods of Daniel Day Lewis, Jared Leto, Viggo Mortenson and the late Heath Ledger. A parody told in the vein of a serious, dark psychological thriller. So, it does upset me to say that I really couldn’t get into this one. My issues with it most have something to do with the film’s tone. There is never that jarring feeling of tonal shift, it is at least constant in its tone. My issue with it is that it takes itself very seriously, trying to be as psychedelic as the likes of Jacob’s Ladder. But the story, the acting and the themes all give the impression that Artifice is intended to be a dark comedy, in the same vein as Dr Strangelove. It’s an exaggeration of well-publicised events or people, in this case method acting. But these are two separate tones that just don’t gel together. I could never tell if I was meant to laugh or be disturbed by what I was seeing or hearing. This works when the film calls for it (such as Split), but I don’t believe Artifice did.
The acting didn’t help this film much either. While it did get better towards the third act, the acting felt pretty wooden. Especially in the first act. The lead actor, before he starts to fall too far into the role, is just so unengaged and uninteresting in his performance that I couldn’t get into his character. And for the most part it’s the same with all other actors. Whenever the film within a film was not going on everyone was either downplayed or passable. This is with the exception of the actress for ‘The Queen’ and the actor for Howard. Again, come act three all the actors start engage in their performances and the film starts to become compelling. Sadly, before then the performances really do drag the film down. I do have a feeling that the underplayed nature of the performances was intentional, as a way of initially separating reality from fiction until they blend together in the end. But if that was so, then the plan had somewhat backfired for me.
The writing didn’t help out much either. I get the feeling that this film within a film was supposed to be a pretentious art project, oozing with meaning and philosophy and questions that only the audience could answer. Therefore, it makes sense that the dialogue is how it is during those scenes. I can even attribute that to Howard as a character. Howard being something of an unhinged artist and perfectionist, so there is the excuse to use such dialogue as well. What doesn’t make sense is who the dialogue throughout the film, even before the characters start filming, always feels a little of kilter and slightly pretentious. The story itself is very well paced and the blending of scenes is well thought out, but once again the tone bogs it down.
Oddly enough I also found the film making to reflect the acting. When the film starts I found the cinematography and editing to be very dull and unengaging. There was a moment where the cinematography actually felt a little homemade, when Jacob came home from his audition. But as the film continues it gets more creative, and then compels in the final act. It’s almost like the director was trying too hard to make things feel so mundane and realistic in the opening that he made the film uninteresting to look at. It is when we have the film within a film that the director really starts to show his passion for this project. And it is clearly a labour of love; this is a film that director Steven Doxey wanted to make.
So when his passion is shown it is at least fun and interesting to look at. But this does turn out to be a double-edged sword. Because of how bland the rest of the film is compared to the fantasy sections I could always tell whether we were in reality or fantasy. There are scenes that bank on the audience not knowing where they are in the film. These scenes would always fall flat because I could tell where I was. This is with the exception of the films excellent ending, that did catch me and have me wondering what had truly happened here.
Artifice finishes great, and the final act succeeds in capturing what the film had set out to do. But it’s sadly not worth an uninspired opening and an overall tonal mess. I do wish to see this story again, as I do still love the idea and the themes to be had. If Artifice was more focused on being a dark comedy or a psychological thriller then more would have worked in its favour. As it is, I am still glad I saw it but I was left mostly dissatisfied. The film has been deceived by an artifice of its own making.
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