If an intriguing plot synopsis comes my way on Netflix Instant, I see little reason to not give it a go. Especially if said film is a mere 90 minutes long.
Quick Plot: Edgar is a pretty miserable fellow. Though married to a beautiful younger woman named Maylon, it’s clear that his wife would be far happier just about anywhere else, especially the Philippines where she lived with her teenage son before the tubby ESL teacher whisked them away for a better life.
That better life has proven to be filled with suspicion and jealousy. A breaking point is reached and the next thing Edgar knows, he’s wandering a large prison-like facility and being herded into group therapy sessions where a televised headmistress of sorts insists he has killed his wife. His fellow group members include a sullen prep school reject who fully admits to murdering his parents, a bitter loner who drowned his children, and a damaged mother ruing her suicide since the 1970s.
They do not make a fun Charades team.
Instead, Edgar’s fellow “prisoners” are forced to relive their final day over and over again in the attempt to accept what they’ve done in order to, in the words of their tormenters, “move on to a better place.” At first, Edgar refuses to believe he could have hurt Maylon, later coming to accuse her of trying to murder him. Think of it as Groundhog Day with hints of Cube.
Made in Canada on a fairly small budget, Cruel & Unusual focuses most of its energy exploring David Richmond-Peck’s Edgar. This isn’t the typical center of your genre film, and it’s certainly the film’s biggest strength. We’ve all known Edgars in our lives. This is the kind of lonely man who believes the world is out to get him, that he’s entitled to far more happiness than he’s ever actually earned.
Putting such a person in purgatory (or whatever you want to call it, since the film doesn’t officially give it a label) is a great move. Writers Merlin Dervisevic and Claudia Morris could easily have gone a different route with their central character, but the specificity of Edgar, this unmemorable loner who had to go across the world to find a woman who needed him, works so well in grounding the film. This is a smartly crafted film that finds its resources in character.
Cruel & Unusual isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a very different little film that shows a lot of promise for director Dervisevic. Think of it as a philosophical thriller with a solid human being at its center. The end result works well.
David Richmond-Peck is truly committed to playing Edgar as a such a non-self-aware, pathetic mass of a man who sees himself as a nice guy but is actually far meaner and uglier than his self-imposed victim status would have you believe
It could very well have been budgetary, but the look of Cruel & Unusual never really says much. It makes sense that the facility would be so drab (and even Soviet-era gray), but considering we’re essentially exploring an afterlife, it feels as though we should have a little more visual differentiation to define the present, past, and fantasy
Menudo isn't very good for those suffering ulcers
Hell is filled with surly strangers and very uncomfortable chairs
Before suicide or murder, try to make a point of wearing comfortable clothes
Cruel & Unusual is a very strong debut for director Merlin Dervisevic, one that makes me eager to see more from him and co-writer Claudia Morris. With its fresh premise and fairly brief running time, this is certainly a recommend for those looking to watch something new and original. Much like the recent Circle, Cruel & Unusual has a Twilight Zone-ish feel and explores it well.