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‘The Blazing World’ Review (Sundance): Horror-fantasy's beguiling style coats an inert narrative

Carlson Young's first feature directorial effort is undoubtedly a creation of its own design, but a scrabbled story drags it down.
Credit: Courtesy/Sundance Institute

Joining the hand-drawn counterculture fantasia of “Cryptozoo” and the nuclear-blasted dystopian rescue mission “Prisoners of the Ghostland” as a strong contender for the most WTF experience to be had at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Carlson Young’s blazingly audacious feature debut “The Blazing World” begins by reigning in its most surreal flashes in order to establish some roughly sketched emotional stakes—to the point where we’re unsure if the journey of Margaret Winter (played by Young) is one that’s worth emotionally investing in at all. An occasional early hint of playful self-awareness –eerily symmetrical compositions, a bolt of a piano chord, casual banter about entrances to psychological realms – makes the wobbly appeal to pathos even harder to put our trust in.

“The Blazing World,” both a broadening and a continuation of Young’s own 2018 short of the same name, begins with a tragedy that rings of the opening scene from “Don’t Look Now.” It unfolds with tantalizing but predictable ease as a young Margaret observes her parents in the middle of a violent fight, and when she reluctantly returns to her home some years later, we find little has changed: They’re still arguing so loud that we hear them from the driveway. You wouldn’t be blamed if you let out a low chuckle the way the moment is staged.

Things have also escalated in all those years. It’s external for Margaret’s parents, who are finally preparing to split up, and for herself too, as she’s taken to obsessions with interdimensional spaces as a way to cope with the childhood trauma of losing her twin sister. Or is that to avoid coping with it? “The Blazing World” keeps intentions vague and plans of action vaguer, to the point where some will find themselves detached from what’s unfolding on the screen even before the tone begins to feel like half-hearted self-parody. At least that’s better than the alternative: That the stilted dialogue and formless urgency of a movie dealing in hints of mental illness is meant to be accepted at face value.

Credit: Courtesy/Sundance Institute

But there comes a point in “The Blazing World,” just after the start of the second act, when our considerations about whether or not to make that compromise go out the window; where we realize Young’s imagination has merely been tightly coiled, its stylistic daring metronomic. Once those rhythms quicken into the footfalls of a feverish sprint down psychological rabbit holes, the movie trades hesitancy for increasingly potent injections of bold craft—intimidatingly vivid colors, obtuse production design and a shameless flexing of visual wackiness with each new sequence. What makes the best of these moments memorable is that they’re so unnervingly tangible; one vignette takes Margaret out to a tiny shack in the middle of a desert, and it looks as if she’d taken a bottle of shrinking potion before wandering onto a miniature set. “The Blazing World” is tinged with madness, but maybe also a bit too maddening for its own good, not that that will keep a certain sliver of wide-eyed genre enthusiasts from submitting themselves completely to the sheer malleability of the aesthetics.

Taking some cues from Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Margaret wanders through subterranean (or sub-psychological) passageways, coming upon a blood-red orb before Udo Kier popsup, here credited as “Lained” but resembling a scheming messenger of fate. He sends Margaret on a quest to collect three keys from various denizens of this nightmare realm—after which she might be able to be reunited with her sister, who we learn has been caught in some purgatorial nether region.

Got all that? Goo—wait, you don’t? That’s just fine too. Because if captivating narrative was one of Young’s priorities here, it doesn’t feel like it; that’s as much a downfall of “The Blazing World” (at least for this critic) as it is a side effect of how much dedication Young and her team has comparatively imbued into the production design and effects. Backgrounds warp. Voices become growls. Obscure foes dress like nuns heading to Mardi Gras. Trails of CGI smoke that look like they were created in Microsoft Paint fly around the room. Even Margaret herself – who Young plays with unconvincing despair, though perhaps that too may be intentional – seems to somehow become younger before our eyes. That doesn’t make her emotional arc any more interesting, largely because, unlike Del Toro’s film, “The Blazing World” can’t harmonize its visual daredevilry with its pathos. Instead, it puts that onus on us. In a slightly different movie, that’d be OK, but “The Blazing World” concludes with such a definitive sincerity towards its protagonist’s condition that Young’s ill-defined approach to the thematic material comes to feel a bit less like a flaw and a bit more like exploitation.

 Still, considering the movie seems designed to overwhelm the senses, it perhaps would have overshadowed any narrative angel. And that’s enough to get me excited for when its writer-director gets the balance right. Could I tell you what exactly happens in “The Blazing World”? No. Could I name three characters? Nope. But Young provides us a glimpse at a rare and respectable filmmaking trait nonetheless: A complete and utter lack of interest in conforming to the norm.

Directed by Carlson Young

Starring: Carlson Young, Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw

2021

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