[SXSW Review] TALK TO ME
TALK TO ME l A24

As I like to say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

TALK TO ME caused me considerable distress in the theatre. It’s filled with characters that could be sitting next to you, filming one of their friends doing something embarrassing and possibly stupid. It’s a great film, emotionally involved, true to life if true life had anything to do with the spirit world.

It’s funny how much filmmaking and television will follow trends. You know how shows do episodes that are “ripped from the headlines,” or you will see a show with some weird promotional concept that was popular for .9 nanoseconds. They act as if it happens regularly enough so that someone might be murdered during the event when it never really caught on. Effectively, it doesn’t matter to them because who will know the truth, and hey, it looks cool.

The difference between writer-directors Danny and Michael Philippou and that kind of thing is that they have grown up in a world where their friends were filming other kids getting wasted and doing stunts for social media, so they understand this behavior implicitly. They can also create an atmosphere where they aren’t explicitly judging this behavior but showing you the consequences of it so that you can make up your mind. It’s part of their world, so they get it in a way that people who didn’t experience it most likely would not, with a depth that people from a different generation would have great difficulty trying to recreate.

TALK TO ME concerns a group of friends discovering how to conjure spirits using an embalmed hand. They become hooked on the new thrill until one of them goes too far and unleashes terrifying supernatural forces. The concept is beautifully simple and effective. The filmmakers have made it easy for you to step into the world and go for the ride. There’s a mummified hand that lets you talk to whatever spirit in the room. The characters believe it wholeheartedly, and the actors’ performances make it real. Okay, I’m sold. Go for it.

The major theme is grief and how grief and longing for a person no longer here can lead us to do terrible things to ourselves and others while trying to get that person back somehow. The story touches not only upon the grief one experiences after a death, particularly the guilt related to suicide, but the similar feeling when you have an unrequited love or experience the break up of a friendship. Also, it explores that desperate wish to rewrite the past, which will never work and can only worsen things. It’s all grief, which is an excellent point.

Sophia Wilde is heartbreaking, a sweet person slightly out of step with a turbulent world who is trying her best to do the right thing. This film is another with a great cast with performances that propel the story forward. While the cast is another excellent ensemble, the standouts are Joe Bird as Riley, Miranda Otto as Sue, Marcus Johnson as Max, Alexandra Jensen as Jade, Zoe Terakes as Hayley, and Ari McCarthy as Cole. I love this trend of finding the best cast for film and for the directors to work to make the actors work together believably and have connections and relationships. This kind of work goes so far in making a film successful artistically and believable right out of the box.

Shoutout to the craftspeople on TALK TO ME, particularly Emma Bortignon for sound design, Paul Katte and Nick Nicolaou’s Makeup Effects Group for the make-up effects, composer Cornel Wilczek‘s score, casting by Nikki Barrett CSA CGA, and cinematographer Aaron McLisky ACS. The directors gave all the credit for how good the film looked and sounded to their crew at the SXSW Q&A, and they were correct in doing so.

The film has a fair amount of low-light photography, and you can see what they want you to see. The darkness is really dark, and the scenes in the light have a haze that gives the audience a sense of unreality in the scenes in the outside world. The interior scenes seem a lot more “real” than the scenes outside, and it is a visual notation of how supernatural forces manipulate reality. That’s the work of the cinematographer Aaron McLisky, which highlights the importance of craftwork in storytelling, just like the scenes with the splendid sound design of Emma Bortignon.

One particular scene is chilling and has an utterly gnarly sound design. Okay, so no spoilers, but I have to talk about it. The setup is exquisite. The whole film was leading up to this moment. When it happened, the visceral impact was set to maximum. The combination of the writing and direction, the actors’ empathetic performances, and the hideous violence and craft of the stunt coordinator all work together to appall the audience utterly. It worked like gangbusters.

As for the fact that the Philippou Brothers are YouTubers, what of it? They have been making gonzo short narrative fiction for almost a decade. Their channel was created in 2013, and I think it’s safe to say they know what they are doing. They have a particularly singular Australian creativity and an anarchic spirit tempered with empathy, but they don’t pull back from the crunch. They clearly love filmmaking and are pretty good at it.

TALK TO ME is a runaway train that never jumps the track. Relentless, compelling, and yes, funny too, this horror show will make you think, “Wtf did I just watch?” and only in the best way. It’s not just brutality. It is filled with interesting people whose humanity makes it all the more tragic when things go wrong. It’s gut-wrenching and absolutely savage.

TALK TO ME played as a part of the 2023 SXSW Film Festival, and is set to be released later this year by A24. Make sure to follow our SXSW coverage here.

Dolores Quintana
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