Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival. Utopia Distribution releases the film in theaters on Friday, December 17.
There’s alchemy at work in Dasha Nekrasova’s debut film “The Scary of Sixty-First,” the kind that can turn what’s old into what’s new. Equal parts ’70s-style paranoia thriller, Polanski-infused apartment horror, “Eyes Wide Shut” homage, and empathetic critical commentary on the conspiracy theories craze, this hallucinatory pastiche is even more than the sum of its cinematically riveting parts. It feels like one of the few genuine attempts at understanding this dislocating moment and the many people who have lost themselves within it.
Addie (Betsey Brown) and Noelle (Madeline Quinn) are apartment-hunting in New York City. That alone is the stuff of horror. But in their case they find an ideal place right away — a shockingly cheap flat on the Upper East Side. They commit to it on the spot, despite an odd tarot card being left behind that suggests some ominous symbology. (Anyone who’s moved into a Manhattan pad and discovered a Pentagrama Esoterico sign on the wall and thought “What’s that about?” can relate.)
One day, an unnamed woman knocks on the door (Nekrasova herself, simply credited as “The Girl”), and tells Noelle, who seems to have nothing going on but loafing around the apartment all day, that they’re living in one of Jeffrey Epstein’s properties. It might even have been one of the places where he kept some of the young girls he trafficked in sexual slavery. This sordid history certainly explains their low rent.
Noelle and The Girl bond quickly, leaving Addie out of their galaxy-brained musings, as they plunge down a rabbit hole of Epstein-related conspiracy theories glued to their screens while laying side-by-side on an air mattress. Inevitably, a romance between Noelle and The Girl blossoms, making “The Scary of Sixty-First” one of the few films really to explore the erotics of conspiracy theories: the couple that travels into the intellectual dark web together, stays together. By the time The Girl asks, “Have you heard of Pizzagate?”, you know the die is cast.
Addie, neglected in all this and shut out from her roommate’s conspiratorial musings, seems to actually be living out a conspiracy theory. If Epstein carried out his vile misdeeds at this apartment, Addie seems somehow to be channeling that history: While having sex with her beta-male boyfriend (Mark H. Rapaport, also a producer on the film, who seems very aware of the movie’s tongue-in-cheek nature), her personality regresses to the age of one of Epstein’s victims. It seems like an incident of supernatural possession, but the BF sees it as a bit of roleplaying that’s gone too far and censors her, mid-coitus, for engaging in politically incorrect sex. She also starts masturbating to images of one of Epstein’s highest-profile companions: Prince Andrew, eighth in line to the British throne.
If all of this seems poised between chilling and laughable, that’s intentional: Cinematographer Hunter Zimny, making his leap to DP after working various other behind-the-camera roles (including as the grip on “Dick Johnson Is Dead”), shoots “The Scary of Sixty-First” on 16mm. There’s a kind of metallic sheen to all the images, even as bright neon colors dominate the frame near the blood-soaked ending — the kind of affect that gives the feel of people looking in on their own lives, even as they’re trying so hard to be active participants. His camera, often moving around the characters, or situated at low or high angles in relation to them, seems to spy on them. The pulsing electro score by Eli Keszler, who worked with Daniel Lopatin on “Uncut Gems,” adds to the feeling of characters whose hearts are pounding, terrified of their situation, but clueless about their next moves.
Though Nekrasova makes her directorial debut here, she’s been well known for several years as a co-host of the podcast “Red Scare,” which provides a foundation for the movie’s concerns. On the show, a discussion of politics may swerve into dating advice and sex tips followed by critical commentary of Scorsese’s essay for Harper’s, or some anti-Ronan Farrow screed, or… an interview with Steve Bannon. Nekrasova and co-host Anna Khachiyan (who plays “Ghislaine Maxwell doppelgänger” in the movie) are Socialists in the strictest sense: They view the landscape of American politics and culture through an economic lens, where elites control the discourse because they control the capital. Someone like Epstein represents the most extreme excesses of an unaccountable one percent. That also means they’re skeptical of “woke” discourse as an enervating distraction from looking at those economic foundations: They’ve praised Trump for dispensing with racial sensitivity (while condemning him for offering nothing to replace it) and regularly call out the #MeToo movement (along the lines of Camille Paglia, one of their clearest influences).
But Epstein is a recurring focus of “Red Scare” because of the systematic nature of his trafficking pipeline, and his ties to people who literally have their hands on global levers of power. “The Scary of Sixty-First,” as much as it parodies conspiracy theorists, also demonstrates a remarkable empathy for them — the most one can find in any modern film beyond “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” In that movie, two QAnon adherents, Jim and Jerry, were nice enough to house Borat for days on end, while hateful enough to say they felt Democrats were the biggest threat to America. More than anything, it seemed they wanted a connection, to be part of something, to feel less lonely — and QAnon provided that. Nekrasova seems to understand something similar about the possibility for connection and fulfillment that conspiracy theories, such as those swirling around Epstein’s death, provide. Where there are such inequities, such obvious hypocrisies, staring us in the face, meaning has never seemed more elusive. And if we’re talking about meaning in our lives, eventually death has to be discussed as well: blood-spattered horror is a logical conclusion, then, for this story.
Much will be made about the connection of “The Scary of Sixty-First” to “Eyes Wide Shut.” But the movie that more closely touches its urbane blend of erotics, affable female friendship, and a search for answers in a world with so many puzzling questions is really “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” Jacques Rivette’s quasi two-hander about a pair of young French women caught up in the need to narrativize the discordant strands of their lives. “Go Boating” in French is an expression that means something akin to “being taken for a ride.” And in “The Scary of Sixty-First,” Nekrasova takes us on one that’s thrilling and unforgettable. Where will she take us next?
“The Scary of Sixty-First” premiered at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival.