“The Dead Center” intrigued me at first and then came to frustrate me later. While it initially comes to us as an interesting mix of H.P. Lovecraft and Bill S. Ballinger, the movie unfortunately begins to trudge during its trite third act, and I was left with mild disappointment and dissatisfaction even though I appreciated how much it attempts to push its insidious story premise despite its low production budget.
Shane Carruth, who is mainly known for his intriguing two feature films “Primer” (2004) and “Upstream Color” (2013), plays Dr. Daniel Forrester, a psychiatrist working in the ward for the mentally ill in some big hospital. While he is trying to do his best for his patients as usual on one day, an unidentified guy is found in the ward, and it soon turns out that this guy does not remember anything about himself as well as how the hell he managed to sneak into the ward. Forrester later examines and evaluates this mysterious guy after making him relaxed a bit, but the guy remains to be a blank enigma, and it looks like there is nothing Forrester can do except having this guy under his supervision for a few more days.
Meanwhile, we get to know a bit about how things have been messy for Forrester’s private life. It is clear that he and one of his colleagues in the ward have some history between them, but the colleague does not want to get emotionally involved with him again even though knowing well that he has been rather emotionally vulnerable behind his phlegmatic professional appearance due to his traumatic childhood past. When he calls the colleague at one night for some emotional support, the colleague shows compassion to him as much as possible, but that is all.
The story subsequently takes a dark turn when, as expected, Forrester’s mysterious patient comes to reveal a hidden dark side barely being contained inside him. According to him, he has been possessed by an entity of unknown evil, and he even committed suicide more than once for getting himself free from that entity as well as protecting others around him, but he only came back to life again and again while being more helpless in front of the grim possibility of getting himself swallowed by that entity once for all. Forrester does not believe much his patient’s words, but then a series of disturbing incidents happen in the ward, and it becomes more apparent to Forrester that he must do something before more bad things happen.
The movie does not leave any room for doubt because, well, its opening scene shows Forrester’s patient suddenly waking up in the morgue of the same hospital shortly after his supposedly dead body was taken to the hospital. A medical examiner scheduled to perform the autopsy on the supposedly dead body of Forrester’s patient is naturally flabbergasted, and then he decides to delve more into this strange problem. Besides talking with a cop assigned to the case involved with Forrester’s patient, he looks into a place where Forrester’s patient once lived with his diseased wife and their two children, and he also meets the concerned parents of Forrester’s patient, who are currently taking care of their grandchildren instead of him.
While the medical examiner comes to see more of what has troubled Forrester’s patient, Forrester becomes more obsessed with his patient, and the movie accordingly provides us several tense moments as slowly dialing up the level of creepiness. Around the point where Forrester finally beholds whatever is lurking inside his patient, the mood becomes more intense and ominous than before, and we come to sense that our doctor may be recklessly dashing toward a peril way over his head.
His storyline and the medical examiner’s storyline eventually converge during the last act, but the movie somehow fails to maintain its narrative momentum, and, to our disappointment, its finale does not shock or surprise us much as going through one predictable moment to another. In addition, Forrester’s gradual mental downward spiral caused by his patient is not so believable as riddled with several awkward plot contrivances, and we only come to observe his increasingly troubled status without much care and attention.
Anyway, the movie works to some degree mainly thanks to Carruth, who is convincing in his understated presentation of his character’s slow but eventual mental implosion along the story. He and Jeremy Childs, who did a good job of handling his rather tricky character, are constantly intense in their characters’ strained interaction, and they are particularly wonderful when both of their characters are respectively on the verge of breakdown later in the story. In contrast, the other substantial performers in the film including Poorna Jagannathan and Bill Feehely are stuck with their poorly developed characters, and I was especially disappointed with the half-baked depiction of the complicated personal/professional relationship between Jagannathan’s character and Forrester.
“The Dead Center” is the second feature film of director/writer/co-producer Billy Senese, who previously made “Closer to God” (2014). I have not watched that film yet, but, as far as I can see from “The Dead Center”, he is a competent filmmaker who knows one or two things about how to engage us via mood and performance, and I sincerely hope that he will soon move onto better things in the near future.