Markus Schleinzer's "Michael" is a triumph of uneasy cinema: Not since Todd Solondz's "Happiness" has a movie portrayed pedophilia in such uncomfortable detail. With an unorthodox level of restraint, the Austrian director tells the story of a dull office drone who keeps a kidnapped young boy locked in his house, where he continually subjects the child to sexual abuse. Despite its subversive edge, "Michael" successfully drains the shock out of a frightening premise and instead delivers a keen observational thriller.
From its opening minutes, "Michael" reveals its alarming plot with a patient, naturalistic atmosphere. The title character (Michael Fuith) arrives at his quaint suburban home in Austria after a long day at work, opens his basement door and calls out to the darkness. The child, Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger), slowly emerges from the shadows on cue. After a brief dinner, they spend the evening together watching television before vanishing back into the dreaded lair. As the title card rolls, Schleinzer establishes both the tone of his quiet drama and its utterly sinister content, a challenging prospect that surprisingly fits together.
Schleinzer never fully establishes the entire context of Michael's misdeed--when and how the kidnapping happened, not to mention whether or not Michael has tried it before with other children. Instead, Schleinzer dwells in the gradual tic-toc of Michael's world, the reality of his home life that he hides from his co-workers, and the insular routine that Wolfgang is tragically forced to inhabit. Schleinzer's screenplay often contains fragments of scenes: Michael and Wolfgang watching TV, cleaning up, or visiting a petting zoo. At one point they celebrate Christmas. Schleinzer shows the onset of a sexual encounter but cuts to another scene before it begins. His approach creates the opposite of sensationalism; he outlines their existence, and in doing so, makes it feel real.
Michael carefully limits Wolfgang's understanding of the situation. The child writes letters to his parents and places them under his pillow, under the assumption that they somehow make their way to the mail. Eventually, that illusion starts to unravel, and the astute Wolfgang begins to act out. That only happens, however, once all hope has faded from the picture.
Hardly a newcomer , Schleinzer has some 60 credits as a casting director to his name, including Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" and "The White Ribbon." Haneke's willingness to broach taboo subject matter may have had an influence here, but Schleinzer's casting experience is also readily apparent. The actors are the movie's secret weapon.
Fuith (who played a different sort of doomed protagonist in the amusing German zombie movie "Rammbock") looks like a nerdier version of Tony Hale's man-child character on "Arrested Development." Wearing a constant blank stare behind his wireframe glasses, he's nearly a figure of comedy--but there's nothing amusing about his private affairs. He's not a sympathetic character, nor even a terribly psychotic one, and the mystery of his pedophiliac urges dominates nearly every scene. At work, he's up for a promotion. He has a caring mother who calls to check up on him, maintains a few office friends, and even manages a one night stand (maybe just to prove to himself that he can do it). Fuith somehow makes this odd dichotomy believable.
Newcomer Rauchenberger, meanwhile, embodies complete innocence with the haunting absence of performance. His sullen expression and inability to comprehend the nature of his captivity deepen the morbid overtones. Although the duo's scenes together are often hard to watch, they leave much to the imagination. The sole graphic moment arrives when Michael whips out his genitalia at the dinner table and quotes a porn movie to his young prisoner, who shoots down Michael's attempt at swagger with ease. Then the worst is over, but the danger hasn't gone away.
Press notes claim that "Michael" takes place over the course of a five-month period, but the sense of time stays ambiguous, as if to underscore the inescapable quality of Wolfgang's conditions. Those mundane details heighten the tension that Schleinzer skillfully creates, but they also embolden the suspense of the movie's final act, when sudden events begin to call Michael's set-up into question. When he recovers from a life-threatening injury or risks the discovery of his basement activities by a nosey co-worker, Schleinzer toys with audience expectations of a clean happy ending, but he avoids exploiting it. Michael is not an object of pity, but Schleinzer still makes his monster familiar, which is a much creepier prospect.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With a U.S. distributor bold enough to take it on, "Michael" could generate enough controversy surrounding its subject matter to gain wide recognition, although most audiences aware of its plot will probably stay away. A small acquisition deal is likely.
criticWIRE grade: A-