Movies: Braid (2018)

I don’t recall exactly when I was first made aware of the 2018 film Braid; I’m pretty sure I read about it on one of those periodic lists that different horror sites put up, listing “best horror movies of the 2010s” or similar, which I tend to peruse from time to time for ideas on what to watch next. The premise of Braid sounded intriguing, but I had sort of forgotten about it until I saw it pop up to stream for free on Tubi the other day. So I thought I’d give it a spin, eager to finally see what it was all about.

I will give a caveat up front, however. I actually liked this film a lot, but it’s definitely one of those movies that you will absolutely vibe with and dig immensely, or will roll your eyes at because it seems like meaningless style over substance, or weirdness for the sake of it. Because I admit that it’s pretty damn weird. I would also suggest avoiding it if you’re not a big fan of acid-trip visuals, a narrative that seems fractured and senseless, and a bewildering array of possible interpretations, because if that describes you, you’re going to have a bad time.

While I was watching, I was reminded of a few other movies here and there, most notably We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the 2018 adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel. I also caught whiffs of 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, a bit of 2012’s Excision, and maybe even a sprinkle of 2016’s The Neon Demon. If any of those movies tickled your fancy, this is another one that’s in the same surreal, hyperkinetic, and overtly stylized ballpark.

Oh, and fun fact: this is actually the first movie in the history of filmmaking that was entirely funded with cryptocurrency. Not that you’d know that from watching it, but I found that an interesting little factoid that might help me out if I ever find myself on Jeopardy! one day.

Written and directed by Mitzi Peirone in her feature-length debut, and also going under the alternate titles Dying to Play and Nobody Leaves, Braid is focused largely on three characters: Petula (played by Imogen Waterhouse of Nocturnal Animals); Tilda (played by Sarah Hay of Black Swan and The Mortuary Collection); and Daphne (played by Madeline Brewer of Cam, Orange is the New Black, and The Handmaid’s Tale).

At the beginning of the story, Petula and Tilda, who appear to live in New York City and are anticipating all the money they’ll make from a big drug score they’ve just made, instead are forced to flee their apartment after it gets raided by the cops. They escape with their lives and freedom intact, but they were forced to leave over 80 grand worth of product behind, and their dealer, Coco (who we never see or hear) has given them 48 hours to get him his money back.

Uncertain of what else to do, the women decide to travel back to their (implied) hometown of Montpelier, Vermont, where their childhood friend Daphne still lives in wealthy splendor. Daphne has inherited a massive estate and presumably a fortune after the recent death of her grandparents, but Daphne is also severely mentally ill, so much so that she seems to have very little connection with reality at all. Petula and Tilda, then, surmise that they’ll be able to search Daphne’s house to find the safe they believe is hidden on the premises, thereby obtaining all the money they’ll ever need.

They’re very aware that this plan comes with a price, however; if they go back to Daphne’s house, they’re going to have to play “the game.” This game, which is revealed to have originated in the three girls’ childhood, has only three inflexible rules: everyone must play, no outsiders allowed, and no one leaves.

The game, in all its bizarre manifestation, is essentially a role-playing exercise. Daphne is always the firm but doting Mother; Tilda is the dutiful daughter who must do anything that Mother says; and Petula is the visiting Doctor, who sees to Daughter’s ailments and even gives Mother some bedside-mannered lovin’ when the mood arises.

From there, the narrative begins to unspool and warp in bizarre and wonderful ways, and the audience is left with the distinct sense that they might possibly be losing their minds right alongside the characters, as the concept of time and continuity becomes ever more slippery. Petula and Tilda go on a PCP-fueled bender at one point, running through magenta-topped forests and upside-down hallways; Petula bashes Tilda’s kneecap with a meat tenderizer, but it seems healed in the next scene; Daphne ties the other two women together with long braids, though they seem to escape without explanation; Petula simulates sex with Daphne, after which Daphne insists she’s pregnant; it gets pretty out there. At one stage, we have a sort of flashback sequence that seems to suggest that when all three girls were children, Petula and Tilda accidentally/on purpose pushed Daphne out of their treehouse while they were arguing about the game, which caused a devastating injury that rendered Daphne forever infertile, hence her continued insistence on playing the Mother role.

While all of this trippy fantasia is occurring, lingering around the fringes is the sole male character of Detective Siegel (played by Scott Cohen of The 10th Kingdom and Gilmore Girls), who knew the trio as children and suspected that Petula and Tilda had pushed Daphne from the tree deliberately all those years ago. In the present day, he arrives at Daphne’s remote mansion after neighbors apparently reported women’s screams emanating from the place, and though he’s convinced that Daphne is hiding the two fugitives from justice (Petula and Tilda were drug dealers, after all), he can’t quite prove it, though Daphne is acting so strangely that it’s obvious she knows more than she’s letting on.

As events grow ever more surreal and violent, time and structure begin to break down further, and the movie starts to seem more and more like an unsettling fever dream. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that this is a very ambiguous film that almost demands a second viewing, as all the tantalizing threads of meaning seem to be hovering just out of reach. You’re led to assume that a large part of what went on in this isolated mansion wasn’t real, but where is the line between reality and imagination? I have a few theories of my own about who or what is “real” in this scenario, but all I’ll say about that is that a “braid,” of course, consists of three sections of hair woven together into a single mass, which might be making some kind of metaphorical statement about the relationship of these three women with one another.

Whether you find Braid a layered, visually stunning exploration of escalating madness, or a beautiful but incomprehensible mess that’s trying too hard to be arty, is entirely up to you and your own sensibilities. I absolutely loved the look of it, the score, the acting work, and the intriguing puzzle it presented, but I can see how some viewers might find it frustratingly opaque and strange for strangeness’s sake. If you have any interest in the other movies I mentioned earlier, you might really get into this, but if not, I hesitate to recommend it, even though I thought it was an outstanding debut feature.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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