Writer/director Zak Hilditch's Rattlesnake, available now on Netflix, is a strong example of a great small-scale thriller: understated, tense and fully aware of how not to overstay its welcome. Grounded by a strong lead performance and a tight sense of direction, it's a simple but compelling piece of horror filmmaking.
Driving down a lonely Texas road, Katarina (Carmen Ejogo) is a ball of neuroses barely keeping it together after seemingly leaving her husband. Her only apparent happiness comes from her young daughter Clara (Apollina Pratt). While pulled over to the side of an empty highway with a popped tire, Clara plays outside and ends up getting bitten by a rattlesnake. With no time to save her, Katarina gives her over to the only other person nearby, a mysterious woman.
After fixing the tire and coming back for Clara, Katarina can't find the woman. Once she arrives at the hospital, Clara's rattlesnake bite is revealed to have miraculously healed. But that's when a new figure appears to Katarina and explains that by saving Clara's life when she was supposed to die, the scales of life and death are uneven. Katarina only has until sunset to kill someone else and pay back the debt she now owes the universe, otherwise the wound will break back open and kill Clara.
The script (also by Hilditch) is lean in all the right ways, working perfectly within the genre. This is very much a thriller, steeped in tension across the entire narrative. It's admittedly not an extremely deep world that's on display, but it is a fleshed-out one. Hilditch directs the film well, giving it an edge of the supernatural bumping into the real world without overplaying his hand.
While there are sequences where death itself seems to come in the form of long-deceased people to keep Katarina on the clock, the tensest moments of the film come during Katarina's encounters with other people. Especially as the day wears on and she becomes more willing to cross personal lines, the inherent anxiety of these confrontations amplifies the already intense story. While the early section of the second-act can drag as the film explores the character's predicament, it all builds to a nerve-wracking climax that sticks with you as the credits roll.
Operating at the center of a largely one-woman show, Ejogo (True Detective) delivers a strong performance at Katarina. She's able to communicate a wide mix of emotions all running into each other as she becomes increasingly desperate to find something that she can do to save her child. As the movie goes on, the character becomes more frantic, while never losing sight of the flawed humanity at the core of her increasingly dark decisions. The rest of the cast works more as support for her performance than as individual characters in their own right, but that's not necessarily a bad thing when the film is as laser-focused as it is on one person's journey towards a dark decision.
Hilditch's own skillset helps considerably, as the film uses the largely empty Texas landscape to both isolate and overwhelm Katarina. The film looks great, using each different setting to amplify how alone Katarina feels during her entire ordeal. The director also knows when to deploy supernatural moments, creating a creepy sense of atmosphere without having to rely on jump-scares to unsettle the audience.
In all honesty, the film feels like something that would come from the mind of Stephen King. It's very personal and human, but knows how to touch on just the right level of the mysterious to force some very difficult (and engaging) questions about our understanding of death and what we're willing to do to stave it off. It's firmly set in a time and place, speaking less about the specific people in the community but the reality of being trapped in this situation.
This isn't a movie that's trying to be anything more than what it is, and that's not a bad thing. Rattlesnake is a great example of how a film that could be dismissed as pulpy horror can be constructed with a genuine sense of craft, resulting in something outright impressive.
Directed by Zak Hilditch, Rattlesnake stars Carmen Ejogo, Theo Rossi, Emma Greenwell, Debrianna Mansini, Bruce Davis, Sean Dillingham and Apollonia-Pratt. It's available on Netflix
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