Retro Review: High-Wire Countdown: EIGHT Catches the Free Fall of a Young Woman’s Fight for Sanity

Snowdance_eight-333x187EIGHT (2014); Dir. Peter Blackburn; Starring Libby Munro; Screened at the Atlanta Film Festival, IMDB.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

The term “high-wire act” is sometimes deployed by critics to describe a film or a performance that’s particularly high-risk, implying disaster should the performer slip up or go too far. EIGHT, an Australian film that just had its North American premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival, pivots on a performance that seems less like a high-wire act than a bungee-cord plunge. Star Libby Munro is in a perpetual state of free fall in the film, without a net to catch her, and the only question is just how hard she’s going to hit the pavement. Only when she doesn’t does the full weight of her accomplishment become clear.

Munro stars as Sarah, a woman crippled by agoraphobia and OCD that appears to have completely shut her in to her home. The entire film follows Sarah as she attempts to begin her day, and if that sounds like a premise that can’t support a feature, then be grateful for your perspective. Movie characters written into sweeping, plot-driven adventures rarely suffer as Sarah does just in the simple act of trying to get dressed. Her illness has trapped her in a paralyzing cycle of eights. She must tap her feet eight times to put on her slippers, make eight taps on the fridge door before opening it for water, and wash her hands violently eight times in a sink before she can convince herself they’re clean. Sarah’s body bears the scars and bruises from her daily struggle with tasks as simple as taking a shower, cleaning the sink, or making breakfast.

eightThe film doesn’t reveal much about Sarah. We see she has an absent family, but we never learn what triggered her condition or how long it’s been with her. What we know for certain is that she wants to get better. Her house is papered with encouraging notes, and an occasional caller checks in with her progress over an answering machine. With this knowledge every lapse, every small mistake that repeats a cycle becomes all the more tragic. Sarah is not insane, she’s ill. She’s fully aware of her condition, but trapped by it, and EIGHT honors the grip of her illness by refusing to cut away from it. Indeed, EIGHT is shot as a single, uninterrupted take that keeps Sarah in the frame for almost all of the film’s 82 minutes. Far from being a showy gimmick, EIGHT’s ambitious single-take style is essential to the understanding of what the film wants to convey. Sarah has no escape, and the film provides a small glimpse of what it means to actually live that kind of life. The film can be brutal, unflinching, and, quite frankly, difficult to watch, but it evokes sympathy for mental illness in a way a more traditional film could not. Unlike other famous one-shot films (ROPE, BIRDMAN), there is no editing trickery on display. It actually is one single, punishing take providing only rare moments of audience relief (words cannot express my gratitude when the camera decided not to stay on Sarah for a third painful, compulsive shower. The camera instead chooses that moment to glide past pictures of the family Sarah has lost to her illness, twisting the knife in another way.)

After the AFF screening, director Peter Blackburn talked about how mental illness—especially OCD—is too often used as a comedic character quirk in Australian film. (Americans who’ve seen Jack Nicholson’s hammy, Oscar-winning performance in AS GOOD AS IT GETS (1997) can relate). Blackburn hoped that EIGHT would put the focus back on the reality of the disorder, and in that his film is a success. Munro’s performance is so raw and tortured that audiences will find themselves cheering for each tiny bit of progress Sarah makes. A stage actor in Australia, Munro masterfully depicts Sarah’s breakdown between the life she wants and the life her compulsions force her to live. Almost entirely without words—over 20 minutes passed before the first voice reminded me that the film is Australian—Munro is able to make Sarah a complete and pitiable human being. Her work here is remarkable, and despite that bungee-cord feeling that disaster could strike at any moment, she confidently sticks the landing.

I’m not entirely convinced that EIGHT does the same, saddled as it is with an ending that, although welcome, is a bit too tidy after the struggle that came before. But the film must still be considered an accomplishment, both in completing its incredibly difficult single shot and for depicting the real heartbreak of OCD through the power of the splendid, fearless performance that anchors the film.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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