The first five minutes of “Plush,” the new musical murder mystery from Catherine Hardwicke (who started the “Twilight” franchise with a bang, before getting shoved to the side for a succession of anonymous filmmakers), are misleading in a pretty profound way. In this introductory sequence, an unseen figure ties a young woman to a chair. She is gagged and helpless, although her positioning and the slick vinyl restraints suggest something even kinkier. The shadowy figure dumps a whole truckload of rocks on top of her while she’s bound, suffocating her under the stones. Bright lights illuminate the ghastly tableau. This is like something out of a “Saw” sequel, especially since nothing even remotely spooky happens for the next 45 minutes. Torture porn, it’s not.
It’s understandable why the filmmakers (Hardwicke and “Paranormal Activity” producer Jason Blum) would begin the film this way. It’s pretty grabby and there’s a great gag involving the film’s title, but it’s not evocative of the film at all, and largely does it a disservice. After the title sequence you get a much better sense of what the movie is, as we watch Hayley (Emily Browning), the lead singer of a band called Plush, explain the band’s history to an unseen listener. They were at the height of their fame, it seems, when she fell in love with a journalist (Cam Gigandet, not exactly pulling off “bookish”), had two kids, and distanced herself from her brother, Jack (Thomas Dekker from the “Terminator” TV show). Jack ends up overdosing, an event that not only throws her into a deep depression but crashes the commercial prospects of the band.
Thankfully, Hayley is finding solace in her relationship with Jack’s replacement (in the band, at least), lead singer Enzo (Xavier Samuel), who she notes even looks sort of like Jack. Their relationship gets complicated, as they first write the band’s big comeback single together and then fall in love (or at the very least, lust). Hardwicke, who also directed “Thirteen,” has a grasp on the violent hormonal traps of youth and captures the coworkers’ passion in a realistic, sweaty way, pushing the boundaries of what is supposed to be a fairly mainstream R-rated thriller in some interesting ways, playing up the bondage aspect of their relationship and, oh, is that a vibrator in that one sex scene? Oh it is? Cool.
When Hayley gets back from tour, her husband and children are glad to see her, but she seems unmoored, psychologically. And when Enzo starts showing up at the house regularly, she gets even more spooked. Something altogether sinister is going on, and she is unsure if it’s an obsessed fan she encountered on the road, her husband (who is doing research on a Vanity Fair piece about serial killers, like you do) or Enzo, becoming entirely too obsessed with their physical relationship. “Sometimes what happens on tour should stay on tour,” Browning coos, her bee-stung lips quivering.
The pool of suspects in this whodunit is sadly limited, but there’s still some good reveals and twists, with the whole movie operating on a level of high melodrama. This might strike some as impossibly unreal; the stuff of really bad soap operas and really great literature. But the young actors (particularly Browning) feel committed to their roles, and when the suspense elements become more overtly known, close to an hour after that prologue, it comes as a welcome surprise. The dread that had infected the film after the opening had always been present and so when bad things start to happen, it comes as an odd kind of relief: well, at least we don’t have to worry about that anymore.
The movie is sexy, in a very real, occasionally shocking way, and it’s interesting to see this kind of frankness in a movie where the characters are all so young (early twenties, if that). Browning’s sugar plum fairy face makes her look even younger, which adds another layer of taboo boundary-pushing on top of everything else, with the movie openly engaging in the kind of playful S&M imagery and scenarios that made “Fifty Shades of Grey” an escapist smash.
Another thing that sets “Plush” apart from its teen thriller ilk is that it really rocks. Nick Launay, a producer and engineer who has worked with Arcade Fire and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, wrote the music and Hardwicke gives it space to shine. In a lot of ways, the movie is a legitimate musical, with songs reflecting the characters’ inner feelings at pivotal times during the narrative (a song, say, about Jack’s death, communicates Hayley’s sadness but it also signifies how far the band has fallen creatively). There were a number of times when the film recalled Brian De Palma‘s glorious cult achievement “Phantom of the Paradise,” and that title sequence evokes recent memories of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” two films that featured heavy musical elements even if no one wanted to come right out and say it.
Ultimately “Plush” exceeds its very limited expectations of a youth-oriented erotic thriller. It’s arch, smart, and incredibly melodramatic. This is one of those movies that will get discovered in five years on home video and will be totally reevaluated. More than “Twilight” and “Thirteen” even, Hardwicke seems to be tapping into something genuine about young love and, more importantly, sex. It’s the kind of messy stuff that seems to be shunned into the margins of most of these movies, hidden under artful lighting and modesty blankets. Here, the director lets it all out in the open, captured by her jittery, loose-limbed camerawork. Hardwicke even manages to goose you with some nifty suspense set pieces that you might not expect. Is “Plush” high art? No. But does it commit fully and follow through with the courage of its convictions? You bet it does. [B+]