Pet is directed by Carles Torrens, who recently helmed the well-received 2013 film Sequence, and written by Jeremy Slater, who co-wrote 2015’s underwhelming The Lazarus Effect as well as the critically derided Fant4stic (sic) Four. Slater was also the executive producer of the recent Fox miniseries The Exorcist; although I managed to miss his films, I did watch all of The Exorcist that has aired so far, and I didn’t care for it (each episode had some good skin-crawling horror imagery but the show itself is dreadfully dull).
The film follows feckless-if-reliable animal shelter employee Seth (Dominic Monaghan), who finds himself infatuated with the lovely-but- boring Holly (Ksenia Solo), supposedly a former classmate with whom he now shares part of a bus commute; she scarcely notices him, as she spends the entire ride journaling each day. Seth spends time gathering information from her off-brand social media profiles and endlessly rehearsing for each interaction, but his stalking quickly escalates despite her attempts to blow him off courteously. After Holly goes to the bar where her infidelious ex-boyfriend (Nathan Parsons) works to confront him about a gift of flowers, only to learn that he had nothing to do with it, she confronts Seth and hits him with her bag, scattering its contents. Seth is further beaten by the ex when Holly accuses him of impropriety, but he makes off with the journal that was left behind. Seth reads the journal at length and begins construction of a person-sized cage in a forgotten basement of the shelter; after following Holly home one night, he drugs her and absconds with her to the cage, where he tells her that he wants to “save” her.
This is where things get really interesting, as Pet swiftly takes its first major turn, setting us up for a chain of reveals, playing out like a more “eXtreme” version of Hard Candy, with the audience being unsure of which character really has the moral high ground and who’s really in control. Admittedly, the trailer for the film claimed that the movie challenged expectations about whether Seth or Holly was the real monster, and I found it difficult to conceive that this could be adequately pulled off; I have to say, however, that the film successfully manages to do so.
Earlier, we see Holly have a few brief conversations with her best friend and roommate Claire (Jennette McCurdy), and we see Holly have another conversation with her after she is caged, apparently as a coping mechanism. Seth quickly lets her know that he has overheard one such conversation, and confronts her with her journal, in which Holly has recounted the evening on which she intentionally wrecked her car with Claire (with whom the ex was cheating) in the passenger seat. When Claire didn’t die immediately, Holly finished her off in a way that would make it appear she died in the crash. All of the appearances of Claire have been hallucinated. This killing seems to have unleashed something in Holly, as her journal details the killings of several other people. She attempts to play this off as creative writing, and although Seth tells her that she is a good writer (she most certainly isn’t, given the few brief insets that we saw flash by on the screen), but that after reading the journal, he followed her to make sure it was true before committing to his “cage the girl you love” plan.
The film continues to spiral into madness from there, with Seth believing that Holly kept the journal because she secretly wanted to get caught, and Holly believing (or perhaps pretending to believe for the sake of gaining his trust) that Seth was drawn to Holly because they are alike, encouraging him to consider his own potential for bloodlust. It’s never clear who’s telling the truth from moment to moment, who is playing who and to what end or for what reason. Although I was dissatisfied with the final twist, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that although I foresaw three possible endings, none of the predicted outcomes came to fruition (if you’re worried that the film will all end up being a story written by Holly, please allow me the honor of letting you know in advance that this is not the case).
This is a flawed film. Above and beyond any knee-jerk reactions to the ostensible misogyny of the piece, there’s a weird tonal shift in the ending that makes it feel like a tacked-on reshoot, with a couple of strange elements that make one feel out of place. Notably, a character is considering violence, sees a knife, and approaches the person against whom they are enraged while hiding something behind their back before revealing that they are concealing something innocuous; why? Every action we saw the characters take up to that moment had been for the purpose of concealing something from another character, not the audience. It was disorienting. Combined with the fact that the epilogue raises quite a lot of logistical questions and has a notably different lighting and color scheme from the rest of the movie, it doesn’t feel
Furthermore, the performances are a mixed bag. Monaghan performs ably as the nebbish Seth, whose apparent ineffectuality and affability makes even his emotional violence lack menace, which is disquieting in and of itself. On the other hand, while there are moments when Solo is knocking it out of the park, especially given that the audience is unsure if she’s truly revealing herself or creating a facade that will ultimately help her earn her freedom, there are weaknesses in her performance as well. The personality that ultimately seems to be her truest self feels the least authentic, and that hurts the film. McCurdy’s brief appearances contain the film’s weakest acting, but she’s not onscreen enough to affect it too negatively.
Overall, however, the film has more to praise than to denigrate. The cheapness of the film is apparent in several sequences that are genuinely cinematic in their framing but appear to be shot on low-end digital video; on the other hand, that same sparsity of funding also means that the film has room to breathe as a character piece, regardless of whether any of the character growth that we see is genuine. If Don’t Breathe is is a schlocky thriller with slick artistic design that disguises its crassness, Pet is a low-rent version of the same, with sufficient style but none to spare. There’s also a wonderfully executed duality in Seth and Holly: he accuses Holly of leading a double life, with a “Holly” character that she plays in public while hiding her real interests under the cover of night; this is ironic, coming from a man who, in private, meticulously practices conversations for each social interaction. Seth’s time spent alone is used exclusively to prepare for the character he plays in public; he has no real internal life. Holly may be playing a role in the real world too, but at least she knows it. It’s a lovely statement on identity wrapped in a nauseating thriller and marred by a subpar conclusion, but well worth the time if you can stomach it.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond