aleph beth null’s review published on Letterboxd:
the joy of being able to tell your own story, have control over your memories, play around with the images in your head, filter them as you see fit—actually, more as you’ve seen fit the feeling, trying to mitigate your first-draft bathos with the imagery you perceive as professional, to cover your inexperience by drawing from the experience of others, occasionally improvising connections to see what fits (reminding me of nothing so much as opal’s bus monologue in nashville). the more aesthetically-focused part of heather’s documentary features lots of static shots of graves in black & white (it’s all they can afford but it’s an aesthetic choice too—those stick figures look a great deal more haunting when given similar treatment), but when the kids aren’t trying to keep a straight face for their documentary they’re as silly-sweet & inventive as varda la glaneuse, filming one another’s cameras recursively, experimenting with cars as dollies—a far more interesting aesthetic, pushed away from the main presentation out of fear it’s not serious enough. (on a meta level, allowing this much time for pure darkness or near-abstract imagery on the big screen is a seriously brave choice that i’m amazed actually made it to release.)
but of course this isn’t entirely edited by the kids; presumably at least some of it (in-universe) is edited by the people who found the footage, who tried to arrange their last few days into some sort of narrative, and the lines blur between personal & external constructions of memory—how much extra footage did the kids shoot? how many failed takes did heather perform for that graveyard monologue? and i guess this could be a fruitful exercise in redaction-criticism, which which i have only very minimal experience, but which i’d be happy to try someday.
besides underrated spooktacular moments such as the child desperately reaching for their mother’s mouth, the vast majority of this is predicated not on horror but on classic frog-boiling character drama. the characters might be more terrified of the dangers of the night but as mike d’angelo pointed out, daylight hardly brings relief or lets them lower their defences. it’s how you act when faced with inescapable culpability from a system you don’t even understand, when there’s no reprieve from accidentally disturbing a cairn. drag me to hell dealt with this kind of fear of unforgivable sin but that was sin with intent to cause harm; this isn’t even jlaw-level intentional disrespect but a genuine mistake. so of course the fear of the witch’s wrath becomes intertwined with fear of divine wrath—‘what killed this dead mouse? witchcraft?’ ‘how ‘bout god?’—but neither the kids nor the audience ever see either, only the works of their hands, and when the kids realise they’ve been walking in circles it’s god mike chooses to curse.
which is a fascinating turn for this quintessentially white american drama. right from the start, the kids are confused by the cameras’ measurements in multiple systems, uncertain how to compare metric with their own us customary units. their cameras’ batteries could ‘fund a small-world [sic] country’, they say, vaguely & derisively aware of the reason—‘it’s not possible,’ says heather on the seemingly endless woods, ‘this is america and we’ve destroyed most of the natural resources.’ which prompts obscenely loud patriotic songs from mike & jason, which in turn probably makes this a contender for greatest sequel to pynchon’s mason & dixon. so they sing their way through the forest, in dappled woodland lighting reminiscent of the similarly subjective rashomon’s; over the creek and through the woods to rustin parr’s house they go.
and they keep filming, or at least heather keeps filming. why? unlike many later found footage camera operators, she’s not prioritising documentation over empathy. mike insists to her that the film they’re making is ‘not about us getting lost; we’re making a documentary about a witch’, but they’re not in control of their film anymore. cloverfield was about a director charged with adapting a script in which he grew gradually more invested, but this is about an actor/director who has her script very rudely yanked away from her and rewritten, who is trying to act the best she can according to that new script, who’s breaking down and desperately wants to keep the tiny bit of control she has over the situation. her co-stars briefly take away that control to mock her—‘you gonna write us a happy ending, heather?’—and insult any motivation she has left, but she keeps recording to the last, trying to direct the rest of her life the best she can, even after the script’s just dried up, even when the images she records have drifted so far from her screams, because ‘it’s all i fucking have left, okay?’