Rupert Jones’s slippery slow-burn psychological thriller Kaleidoscope is powered by a fusion of two elements — a female corpse and a disturbed mother-son relationship — that immediately evokes Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Unlike that movie, however, Kaleidoscope unfolds in a frustrating achronological fashion, with the writer-director, Rupert Jones, toggling among three key points: a first date between Carl (Toby Jones, Rupert’s brother), an isolated ex-con, and Abby (Sinead Matthews), a woman Carl met through an online-dating platform; the morning after the rendezvous, when Carl wakes up to find Abby dead in the upstairs bathroom, blood splashed on the walls; and the ensuing days and nights of fraught mother-son cohabitation, the consequence of the former’s sudden trip to London. The discomfort of Carl’s relationship with his mom, Aileen (Anne Reid, who played opposite Daniel Craig in The Mother), is insinuated even before she materializes onscreen, when Jones zooms in on the answering machine emitting the announcement of her impending arrival with sufficiently grand menace.
Jones’s constant temporal shuffling calls into question the reality of the events depicted: One flash moment, for example, shows Carl racing to the bathroom and discovering Abby heaving on the floor, suggesting she might be alive after all; he frantically embraces her and apologizes. Minutes later, however, Jones switches back to Psycho territory, sticking us alongside Carl as he goes about the dirty business of ditching a body. He pulls down a suitcase from the closet and crawls inside to approximate whether Abby would fit. When that doesn’t work, he gets a saw from the kitchen and (this part is left largely offscreen) carves her up to make her more feasibly hideable. Such narrative toying-around has the effect of making these characters seem less like thinking, feeling people than cogs in a complicated puzzle-piece screenplay. Furthermore, that this movie about a man’s tormented mind uses as its intrigue-generating launching-off point the dismemberment of a random woman’s body — Carl discovers the battered Abby under four minutes in — is a cringeworthy start that Kaleidoscope never shakes.
Jones evokes Carl’s mental unreliability through visual motifs — like the totem from Carl’s childhood that discharges fractured images of colors and reflections — and packed-in residential claustrophobia that reaches for the sanity-testing horror of Roman Polanski’s apartment thrillers Repulsion and The Tenant. (A rare out-of-house sequence showing Carl walking into town to get his passport renewed is told almost entirely through bobbing close-ups of the newspaper in his hand, the perspective mirroring Carl’s fear of life beyond his doors.) This uncertainty helps to slow-play specifics: the precise nature of Aileen’s harm or the events by which the outwardly docile Carl might have been moved to murder Abby. The result is an upsetting feeling of being spoon-fed ambiguity for little ultimate gain; there’s not much reward in sitting through episodes of Aileen and Carl behaving awfully toward each other only to learn that, yes, definitely, this relationship has been abusive for some time.
Abby’s grim absence is all the more disappointing because the courtship scene between her and Carl is the only one that tingles with actual human interest. Elsewhere, Jones and Reid are hemmed in by the screenplay’s schematic nature: It seems absurd, for instance, that Carl, after enduring the shock of disposing of Abby’s body, would be so freshly, legibly upset upon greeting his mother, even if such a beat makes perfect sense from the point of view of a strategic screenwriter. Matthews’s endearing Abby, conversely, is the story’s variable and a live wire of vulnerability, accepting cocktails from this unknown stranger and opening herself up with brazen compassion. She, in turn, reveals surprising sides to Carl, as when we realize that his earlier errand-running (juices, vodka) was not for his benefit but for his date’s, whose profile indicated a liking for Sea Breezes. This interaction pulses with multilayered psychology and a momentum missing from the rest of Kaleidoscope; in its place are studiously crafted and dutifully unsettling scenes with conclusions that are either emotionally obvious or needlessly muddied.
Written and directed by Rupert Jones
Opens December 8, IFC Center