Eye For Film >> Movies >> Who's Watching Oliver? (2017) Film Review
Who's Watching Oliver?
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
In the Eighties it would have been written off as a video nasty; now it's dismissed by some critics as torture porn. Both descriptions fit, in their way, but it's sad that any critic should believe this invalidates Who's Watching Oliver? as a piece of art. In fact, there's a long tradition of outsider film art using these conventions as a deliberate means of discomfiting audiences and forcing them into a critical relationship with what they're viewing. Yes, a lot of lazy or poorly skilled filmmakers resort to gruesome horror just to create sensation, but this is one of the exceptions.
The titular Oliver (Russell Geoffrey Banks) is an awkward young man who lives a life of dull, almost obsessive routine in his dark and unwelcoming flat, shunning even the cat who is trying to adopt him. His life is dominated entirely by his mother (Margaret Roche), who appears on his computer every night to demand that he engage in sexual acts he's increasingly uncomfortable with, or to demand that he go out and find young women to rape and murder for her pleasure. Awkward, slack-jawed, taking his medication when she tells him to (it's unclear whether he's actually ill or this is another form of control), he seems desperately unhappy with the whole situation, coping by trying to distance himself from his feelings. Until, on one of his daily excursions to the local park, he's approached by the beautiful Sophia (Sara Malakul Lane), whose interest in him makes him suspicious (and may well make viewers worry for her) but whose sweetness gradually persuades him that he might have the hope of a better life.
Can we - should we - sympathise with Oliver? Director Richie Moore balances the film very carefully. The fact he doesn't flinch from the barbarity of the rapes and murders forces us to confront the whole - really, Oliver isn't in a very different situation from Psycho's Norman Bates, but it's harder to separate the sweet, vulnerable side of him from the rest. Had Moore trodden more cautiously around his depictions of female suffering - been less 'exploitative' - it would have been much easier for viewers to pretend they didn't matter. Instead, in order to connect with this character, we have to confront the way that he too is being abused - and has been since childhood - and ask to what extent we expect somebody in this situation to control his own life. His budding romance is appealing pretty much no matter what we think of him if it might bring the violence to an end. Yet Sophia's mysterious behaviour leaves us wondering if she has an agenda of her own.
At the centre of all this is Roche's performance, which has echoes of Diane Ladd's crazed Marietta in Wild At Heart but turns the volume way, way up. There's a comedy element to it which, again, is used to discomfiting effect, and its very absurdity highlights the warped effect it has on Oliver's perception of reality. All he really needs to do to escape is close the computer, but he's so overwhelmed by his mother's force of personality that he's terrified of disappointing her. In one scene he arrives home late to hear the computer beeping at him, and that small electronic noise has never sounded so angry. Banks captures the anguish of somebody who has been through this kind of psychological conditioning process perfectly. It may or may not excuse him, but at the very least it invites us to feel angry on his behalf.
Overall, it's the quietness of Banks' performance that makes the film work. The huge implications of the way he lives conceal a shy man who, in a different life, might easily have ended up as a downtrodden accountant or admin assistant. He seems to be trying to take up as little space as he can. In the small rooms of the apartment, Moore keeps the camera low so that his body looms large. Outside, on the bus or in the park, he's the sort of man whom nobody would notice, or whom they'd dismiss as a bit of a joke. Moore make bus rides feel like fairground rides, careening through unfamiliar territory. In these brief, sunny hours, Oliver enjoys a sort of freedom, but for his compulsion to go back.
There's a distinctive visual style to the film that shows confidence rare in a newcomer. Moore is a man with ideas that go far beyond the simple telling of the story, and this marks him out as a talent to watch. Who's Watching Oliver? is a film that will stick in your mind long after you've watched it, and if you're willing to acknowledge the purpose of the violence or look beyond it, you'll find it an intriguing piece of work.Reviewed on: 04 Jul 2018