It's always something of a gamble when filmmakers operate outside of their safety nets, but Sebastián Silva's movies have never played it safe. Both "Old Cats" and "The Maid" took the mold of family dramas and transcended them with a mixture of dark humor, physical violence and miscommunication. The tricky balance paid off, but with "Magic Magic," Silva hits a wall. More formally ambitious than "Crystal Fairy," one of two movies directed by Silva and co-starring Cera that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, "Magic Magic" takes the form of a serious-minded thriller but lacks a reason to care for any of its characters. Cera, playing against type in a stony-faced role, sends this project further out of whack, a shame given the caliber of talent associated with its creators.
But that's not to say the movie is entirely devoid of intrigue. The story revolves around a group of Americans and Chileans heading out to a countryside getaway while one of them gradually goes insane. Alicia (Juno Temple) tags along with her pal Sarah (Emily Browning), her boyfriend Agustin (Agustin Sílva), his sister (Catalina Sandino) and irreverent American loudmouth Brink (Cera) on a trip constantly dominated by a gloomy mood. The great Christopher Doyle's cinematography draws out the growing feeling of isolation as the group makes their way to the expansive forest terrain where most of the movie takes place.
When Sarah abandons the group to run an errand in town, Alicia winds up trapped with a group of strangers whose attempts to befriend her lead to increasingly problematic exchanges: Constantly dazed and progressively divorced from reality, Alicia suffers from an insomnia that begins to impact her perception of the world around her. So far so spooky.
But at a point that arrives too late in the meandering narrative, Agustin attempts to cure Alicia of her neuroses with a hypnosis trick that instead unlocks some vaguely defined madness that makes her exchanges with the group even more unsettling, particularly as she grows intimated by Brink's romantic advancements and eventually strikes back at him with a half-conscious act of sexual aggression.
Temple, whose spacey gaze seems to carry over from movie to movie, never solidifies into a real object of sympathy — and since the suspense hinges on her lapsing sanity, "Magic Magic" never obtains the truly disturbing emotions it aims for. The issues becomes more problematic during a cryptic finale in which nothing is explained or otherwise resolved; it's as if Silva had the start of an idea and gave up before figuring out a way to finish it.
Unlike the comparatively upbeat "Crystal Fairy," the movie's flaws don't obscure the skill involved in its creation. Cera stands out in an undeniably creepy turn made all the more jarring when compared to his usual deadpan delivery. While "Magic Magic" frustrates in its absence of a fully defined trajectory, it does provide the first real indication that Cera contains a broader dramatic range. It's equally a calling card for Silva as a filmmaker with a capacity for straightforward genre filmmaking — eerie by implication, his direction here trades big jump scares for a constant dread percolating throughout various ominous insinuations.
The woodsy setting, a familiar location used in any number of scary stories, takes on an especially disorienting dimension during the first half, when the plot could go any number of different ways. Instead it goes none of them and collapses in blurry developments. Even as Silva maintains a spooky atmosphere, the insufficiently defined characters and murky events keep the stakes of the situation at a distance. Without any serious investment in the grim proceedings, "Magic Magic" never manages to cast a spell.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Produced by Killer Films, the movie will probably find a home with a genre label able to play up the Cera/Temple factor and manage decent returns on VOD. A limited theatrical release is a possibility, but commercial prospects are slim.