There’s a new face on the filmmaking horizon named Zoe Quist and let me tell you, she’s a name we want to see more of. With a keen eye, Quist’s sophomore directorial effort, RAW CUT, shows her knack for storytelling through pacing and framing, creating mounting tension and suspense that unleashes at the perfect moment for an explosively surprising reveal to still the heart of even the darkest and most bloodthirsty fan. Who and what will make it to the final cut of life?
Adam Cohen is in love. A rather arrogant braggart with a seemingly fat bank account, it’s no secret that he’s in love, but there’s something about the relationship and his fiancé Stephanie herself that’s unsettling. Stephanie, working on a filmmaking thesis, always has a camera in her hand, shooting sights, sounds and sex, all in the name of “her art.” Joining the couple at Adam’s Wyoming retreat is his lifelong best friend Jack and his wife Amanda. (Seems that Adam and Amanda had a “somethin’ somethin’” back in freshman college years and have managed to stay friends ever since.)
For Stephanie, Jack and Amanda are a necessary component to the weekend as they are going to be additional “actors” in her “found footage”horror film. Arriving at the house with no clue of the “filming” that is about to unfold, Adam has assured Stephanie the couple will be willing participants. He “knows them”. Reluctantly agreeing to participate in the project, and although no formal script is written and no dialogue provided, Jack and Stephanie are assured that Stephanie has the entire film planned out in her mind and they should just follow her directions. The premise? Standard horror trope, or is it?
As we watch Stephanie’s “masterpiece” take shape, through the manipulative lens of her ever-present camera resolution is so clear, so intimate, that it goes beyond the “found footage” film, zooming in on life itself, enabling us to see the cracks in the veneer of each person, each couple. Is this a “horror film” she’s making? Or something darker and more horrific about life itself?
When it comes to performances, I admit to being surprised on several levels. Initially unimpressed with C. Ashleigh Caldwell’s Amanda, as the story progressed, like an onion, Caldwell peeled back layers of Amanda that were hidden beneath the surface, revealing an interesting character and talented actress. Zoe Quist, who directs herself as Stephanie, proves to be a better director than actress, never quite finding the character’s footing and has an unpalatable taste from the start that feels out of place on every level. Daniel Ponickly knocks it out of the park with Adam’s horny, exuberant arrogance, but then adds a lovely nuance of heart and true loyalty and friendship in a quiet moment with Christopher Kelly’s Jack. Thanks to Ponickly, one scene tells us why we can overlook the sometimes unlikeable traits in a friend. The real emotional standout is Christopher Kelly. Textured and running the gamut from slapstick to heartbreak, Kelly grounds the film in truth and reality.
Distracting, however, is an over-done 80’s vibe to Amanda’s make-up and costuming, while short-skirted Stephanie hiking in the woods just doesn’t cut it.
Directed by Quist and written by Ponickly, key to the story is the edginess that Ponickly develops thanks to character and story ambiguity. This great tone is then complimented by cinematographer Daniel Clarke’s beautiful panoramic vistas and golden hued glow and intimacy of a pine walled home in the rustic mountain covered valleys of Wyoming. Nice touches of deep red with wine and food, provide a metaphoric prescience of story. With a construct that bodes dichotomous juxtaposition of story and visuals, we are kept off guard, wary of the characters before us, letting tension and uneasiness fill our minds.
Directed by Zoe Quist
Written by Daniel Ponickly
Cast: Daniel Ponickly, Christopher Kelly, C. Ashleigh Caldwell and Zoe Quist