With most thrillers or horror movies – certainly those involving mysterious houses and long-buried secrets – you expect to be kept in the dark until relatively near the end. You expect the central tension of the narrative to be the step by step unveilings leading to The Truth of what’s going on. House at the End of the Street doesn’t do that. Not exactly, anyway.
It actually lays most of its cards on the table by the end of the first act. What follows from there is not a series of neck-wrenching plot twists so much as a few subtle, layered revisions to what has come before. This makes the film… well, what, exactly? A character study? A psychological thriller? I’m honestly not sure. By placing all its pieces on the board relatively early, the film limits its narrative force to the nature of its characters and the moves they make from then on. That’s an intriguing choice, as that kind of self-discipline in cinema can be the source of great art. I wouldn’t quite recommend House at the End of the Street, but I confess I was intrigued but this aspect of it. And I certainly wasn’t bored.
The film opens on Carrie Anne, a young girl with piercing blue eyes and a piercing kitchen knife, as she murders both her parents in the family home. Her older brother Ryan (Max Thieriot) is living away with a relative. Four years later he’s moved back into the house, both as a fixer-upper job and as a form of remembrance. The arrival of Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her mother Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) at the house next door kicks off the narrative.
Elissa is both repulsed by the shallow yuppie neighbors, and harbors a long string of resentments against her mother. This drives her to befriend the strange but gentle Ryan, one of the only people in the town with whom she experiences genuine feeling. But Ryan’s past and the murder of his parents hides festering secrets, which ultimately embroil him, Elissa, her mother, and even the town’s only cop (Gil Bellows).
The script contains so few gimmicks that it feels almost retro. There are more thank a few hints of Psycho here, given both the structure of the narrative and the psychology that’s at work. Alternatively, you could see the film playing out in the same vein as A History of Violence or Eastern Promises; it’s so deceptively simple you almost want to squint to the deeper iridescent layers that you’re sure are shifting just beneath the surface. But director Mark Tonderai lacks both Alfred Hitchcock’s capacity for flair and David Cronenberg’s dissecting eye. The material entertains, certainly, but never really comes to life as a story. Tonderai’s visual choices are not poor, but they feel derivative with just occasional flashes of creativity.
I really do think there was potential here. The script isn’t stupid, and the choices the characters make it all seem plausible and psychologically organic. The actors are all game. It’s just that the film never quite decides exactly what it wants to be about. At times it seems like it will be a generational story about the reconciliation between a mother and daughter. At other times, questions of human brokenness lurk near the surface. The story tests the limits of human empathy when it runs up against the baleful, unyielding wall of deep psychological damage. The final shot of Jennifer Lawrence in particular hints at a moral depth, and grief over our failure as human beings to ever really know one another.
But that’s all hints and scraps rather than fully developed themes. In the end, the film doesn’t have the audacity or perversity to be a pulp thriller, nor does it have the perception to be anything else. House at the End of the Street just never quite gels.
On a side note: I’ve now seen Jennifer Lawrence in this, X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games. Each time she’s displayed a striking physicality that’s equal parts prowess, principle, and remarkable human vulnerability. At one point in this film she scorches her own wrist for an agonizing minute to break through her bonds. I haven’t seen Winter’s Bone, but everything I’ve heard suggests she delivers the same there. The young woman seems an able successor to Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Can we please get her in a James Cameron movie already?