Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival. For more information on the festival visit sxsw.com and follow SXSW on Twitter at @sxsw.
Early in my screening of Pet on my home theater projector and projector screen, I was struck with concern. All signs pointed to this piece of genre fare being something recycled and typical. Its main character was a strange loner that you have seen in this type of film too many times, and its enticing blonde damsel was de rigueur. My brain had already written it off, it was on its way out the door as the late time of the showing started to tempt my consciousness away. But then, it turned, it grew, it became something else all the more fascinating.
The extent to which Solo melts away and Holly becomes the only remainder would be entirely frightening if it also weren’t absolutely mesmerizing.
As it begins, Seth (Dominic Monaghan) is like oh-so-many that have come before him. His detachment from social graces, his quiet and friendless ambling, it reminds of Norman Bates or One Hour Photo’s Sy Parrish. It’s the type of character that you expect to do bad things and to do those bad things with an odd and detached grace. His positioning as the lead is a demoralizing factor and a large reason for the front half of the film to feel hopelessly generic. It frustrates in its simplicity, in his loose connection with his own character development, transitioning in service to a dragging plot. This is the point where you hate Pet, where you want it to be special but have little hope.
Then, as if writer Jeremy Slater was witnessing his own story drift deeper into mediocrity, it corrects. Slater realizes that shackling this tale to Seth is to doom it to the inconsequential, another midnight film drifting into the ether. Almost in real time, you watch Slater come to the realization that a woman can be a vehicle for strength. And in that strength can reside a special kind of terror.
That is when the film becomes Holly’s, or perhaps to be more precise, Ksenia Solo’s. Solo becomes Holly to such an extent as to strike a deep and unrelenting fear into the viewer. The extent to which Solo melts away and Holly becomes the only remainder would be entirely frightening if it also weren’t absolutely mesmerizing. While Monaghan may be the film’s brighter star in the eye of the public, his relevancy all but vanishes in the shadow of Solo. It is likely due to the poor construction of his own character or an American accent that never seems to fit just right, but regardless, Solo runs house on all involved and insists that you take grand notice.
Director Carles Torrens shoots the film in a style whose grime is so thick that it lends the proceedings a strange kind of polish.
Once the film has found its way, it becomes something fresh and enticing. It grabs the audience by the throat and dares you to run away, knowing full well that it has given you little choice but to stay. The tension ratchets up spectacularly and your blood pressure rises in the anticipation of what may lie behind the next corner. Director Carles Torrens shoots the film in a style whose grime is so thick that it lends the proceedings a strange kind of polish. He teases you with snippets of gore before making it rain viscera. Once the film has gone to its dark place, there is no returning, and Torrens seems to like it like that.
Through it all, the film’s greatest strength is in a singular character, Holly, and the harrowing performance of Ksenia Solo. The fringes of the film are shaded in stereotypes and confusing character construction. Seth himself is so shaky and unsure of the mode he wants to spend this film in to push the viewer dangerously past frustration into anger. There are so many bits that read as little more than lazy that the film is begging you to hate it. So it is smart to evolve when it does, it is just a bit disappointing that Holly seems to be its only true champion. Pet lulls you into believing that it is something generic and pitiful. It relies on your own cynicism and familiarity with the genre trappings it often relies on. But when Pet makes up its mine to be something special, it does so spectacularly. I only wish it hadn’t taken so long to get there.
Check out our review of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.