Lake Mungo (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Lake Mungo (2008)

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Alice Palmer, sixteen years old and seemingly happy with her life, drowns under mysterious circumstances.  Dissatisfied with official reports, her family begins taking unusual steps to find out what happened to their daughter.  A documentary crew follows, records, and leads the Palmers to revelations they might not want to know.  Joel Anderson wrote the screenplay for and directs Lake Mungo, and stars David Pledger, Rosie Traynor, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker, and Steve Jodrell.

Lake Mungo, in concept and execution, may be the most perfectly realized found footage film in existence.  Found footage is fascinating as a mode of cinematic expression because of the implications of its existence.  There's a fictional editor at the wheel, taking bits of people's lives and crafting a narrative for an audience to serve a purpose we can only speculate about.  Writer/director Joel Anderson understands this on an almost preternatural level, witnessing a family torn apart by the loss of their daughter, having those wounds freshly reopened because of technology, and creating a film where its existence relies on wounding the Palmer family one more time for our entertainment.

The affect of Lake Mungo is in its gaps.  Other found footage horror has played with our expectations of empty spaces, that anxiety that something needs to be in shots of empty halls or static bedrooms, then confirming that anxiety with horror.  The gap at the center of Lake Mungo contains no scares - at least not in the way other horror films have used them.  The absence of Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) isn't some distraction so her ghost might pop out of the corners.  The absence is the horror, the realization that she is dead and never coming back, and that our constant need for entertainment and intrigue has put the Palmer family on a traumatic cycle where they'll be forced to relive the loss of their daughter for the rest of their lives.

The Palmer family dynamics are constantly shifting with each performer putting different pressure on each other and the camera as the story unfolds.

The repetition of seemingly empty images is part of this cycle.  Once we know Alice is missing, and later found dead due to drowning, the flickering lights and swaying limbs in multiple empty shots are toying with our built-in assumption that she will be found in one way or another.  Anderson expertly weaves in the  dialogue of her surviving family, leaving more gaps in-between hesitant statements.  Like the images, their words break because they hope to convince themselves that death isn't the end, that their daughter is still with them in some way.

That's where technology reveals itself as a harsh overseer of the Palmer family's suffering.  It's too easy to create monuments to loss in our digital age.  With each video the surviving son Matthew (Martin Sharpe) captures, he's giving his mother June (Rosie Traynor) a reason to dig deeper into Alice's death and put off for one more day the truth that her daughter isn't coming back.  The film itself is a monument to the Palmer's suffering, leading them right to the edge of accepting their daughter is gone then twisting the visual knife to draw our attention to other shapes in the background that look vaguely like a spirit.  And it's all for our entertainment.

This is something psychic Ray Kemeny (Steve Jodrell) understands.  He's a refreshingly straightforward guy in a field packed to the brim with hacks and predatory monsters.  There is some predation in the way Ray continues to insert himself in the Palmer's life, but he crafts no illusions about why he's there.  "Whatever happens after death is up for grabs," he says while taking June's money and time, offering the vaguest platitudes about Alice.  Yet he's treated differently, where the family members are shot in simple interview arrangements and home videos, he gets more complicated lighting to appear a thoughtful individual.  Game recognizes game, and the brains behind the documentary understand the wounds likely to be reopened in the final shots may have need of his psychic interference once more.

The most painful gaps resist exploitation, and the resulting tension is what makes Palmer father Russell (David Pledger) the most compelling character.  He's the least comfortable answering mundane question about his daughter's death, and Pledger's combination of annoyance, pain, and confusion made me feel for him in each pause between his words.  It's his voice that also drives one of the most eerie, and funny, shots in Lake Mungo.  After confirming his daughter's death his car will only drive in reverse, so we watch a long reenactment of headlights piercing a dark horizon enough to show the shape of a vehicle going backward.  If there's a shot that more perfectly encapsulates Lake Mungo, revisiting a worn path at the urging of another that leads only to pain with technology as the vessel, I'd like to read about it.

There is a ghost in this shot. Would you think to look if I told you that? Lake Mungo understands ghost stories grow in telling, and our need for human reflection fills in the gaps.

While everyone's trying to exorcise their pain onscreen, the editor behind Lake Mungo makes their intention to milk this story for all its worth known in troubling ways.  For starters, did those girls really need to be in their bikinis when revelations about Alex come to light?  Of course not, but sex sells, and the slightest suggestion of sex is sure to keep the viewer engaged.  The editor's interest in entertainment over catharsis goes right through to the end, which some my see as a sign of the supernatural, but I only see as a sequel hook for another round of Palmer family pain.

So Anderson and Lake Mungo leave the Palmer family worse than they started.  The final frame revelations will only bring about a new round of inquisition that brings them to the same terrain they've worn down.  Then they'll be left with the gaps, the empty spaces in their homes, the words left drifting in silent hope their daughter will come back to provide an answer.  She gets to rest.  The Palmer family deserves the same.

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Lake Mungo (2008)

Screenplay written and directed by Joel Anderson.
Starring David Pledger, Rosie Traynor, Martin Sharpe, Talia Zucker, and Steve Jodrell.

Posted by Andrew

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