THE TENT is a solid concept with an execution that works better as an academic exercise than as a piece of art of entertainment. Written and directed by Kyle Couch, it takes place after The Crisis, a nebulous catastrophe that the characters refer to by that name but never really define. It seems to involve monsters that have taken over the world, but the rules of survival are confusing and inconsistent, and the monsters themselves don’t seem all that powerful or menacing.
The story focuses on David (Tim Kaiser), some kind of survivalist whose old home videos explaining how to live on your own in the wilderness are intercut between present-day scenes of him attempting to do just that. David eventually runs across Mary (Lulu Dahl), another survivor of The Crisis who reveals that she’s been watching David and learning survival tips from him. Their dialogue is very odd…they have discursive philosophical discussions for no apparent reason, and they frequently contradict themselves. Sometimes Mary seems to know what the world is like post-Crisis, while at other times she seems to have no idea what’s going on.
Everything is explained by a last-minute twist, but just because the viewer can put the pieces together to understand why the majority of the movie is frustrating, contradictory, and dull doesn’t change the fact that most of THE TENT is simply a chore to watch. I appreciate what Couch was going for with this story, and the dedications at the end are truly touching, but the movie loses so much goodwill with the audience that the message doesn’t resonate nearly as much as it should.
Couch was clearly working with a limited budget, and I must applaud him for creating a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia and open space in the forest scenes. Feeling safe while being stuck in a trap is a notion that takes on a poignant meaning by the end of the film, and Couch makes good use of the natural environment to convey this feeling. Unfortunately, I didn’t think the payoff was worth the 70-odd minutes of confusing and frustrating build-up.
Another praiseworthy aspect of the film is the creature design. The monsters – when we finally see them – are frightening and intriguing, with unnatural horns and hellish glowing eyes. Unfortunately, we see them for less than two seconds. The rest of the time, we hear vague growling and see black-and-white Creature Vision, where the monsters lurk only a few yards from the characters without attacking, choosing instead to watch them…and watch them…and watch them.
Again, many of the aspects of the film that frustrated me can be explained away as metaphors that fit the twist ending. But just because it all makes sense in the end doesn’t make THE TENT entertaining or artful. I really think this story would have worked better as a short film. Take out some of the filler and repetition, and you might have a movie that earns the emotional weight it aims for at the end. Couch is clearly passionate about his subject matter (which I won’t spoil here, but it’s an important topic that can be – and very recently has been – fertile ground for horror stories). Unfortunately, in trying to get his audience to understand the horror of a cause that seems near and dear to his heart, he forgets to tell a compelling story.