As the oldest film school in the U.S. — and the alma mater of filmmakers as accomplished and diverse as George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ryan Coogler and Rian Johnson — USC Cinematic Arts established a reputation for skilled craftsmanship, rich community and compelling storytelling. This week we spotlight their newest generation of filmmakers, working in a wide range of genres and styles.
A young boy, Freddy, is tending to a dead animal on his farm when a stranger walks past and gives him a laconic greeting. But before the boy can wonder who the stranger is, he’s told to do his chores by his father, Mr. Jones, a stern and harsh man. This is the same man who will murder his wife and mother at the breakfast table, right in front of the boy and his sister Lucy.
The two terrified children remain on the isolated farm with their father, who slowly twists the children’s questions around to sculpt a new memory of what happened in the children’s mind.
He also begins to be a little kinder to Freddy and Lucy, though a tinge of threat rears its head when Freddy especially questions the details that the father begins to plant in his children’s minds, especially that of a stranger with red hair, big white teeth and white hands who came into the home and hit their mother in the head.
But despite everything, justice catches up to the father — though not without having an indelible, chilling effect on the minds of his two young children.
Writer-director John Conway’s quietly riveting psychological drama — based on the haunting short story by American literary great Stephen Crane — takes place in post-Civil War America. But with its emphasis on the malleability of memory, emotion and feeling — and the twisting of innocence to nefarious ends — it feels startlingly modern and contemporary.
The literary pedigree of the source material informs the film’s artistry, and the storytelling takes its time to set up character and setting with great care and detail. There is a sober classicism in the craftsmanship, with rich and shadowy cinematography, stately editing, and a darkly bewitching musical score. The result is an atmosphere of mystery that pulls viewers in the dark, twisted and unnervingly calm world of the Jones family.
The performances are especially effective in their understatement and matter-of-factness, especially of Mr. Jones, who begins the film as a shadowy, opaque figure shrouded in shadows — a harsh voice coming out of a dark silhouette. Actor Brett Rickaby ably shades Jones with a foxlike calculation, especially as the father ramps up a false warmth and conviviality with his children as his own lies escalate with them. He pulls his children in as co-conspirators in his deception — and though it is not enough to keep the secret in the end, its effect on Freddy and Lucy is incalculable.
“An Illusion In Red and White” is a fascinating watch, especially at a time when there is much discussion about gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group covertly sows seeds of doubt into someone, making them question their own memory, perception or judgment. But the real twist of the knife is watching a father twist children’s natural desire to win the love and approval of their parents to cruel and selfish ends. The final scene encapsulates perfectly just how lingering such manipulation is, and how persistent a child’s desire to love and believe in their parent can be — much to tragic effect sometimes.