Del and Mladen review ‘The Arbors’
“The Arbors” Starring Drew Matthews, Ryan Davenport, Sarah Cochrane and Alexandra Rose. Directed by Clayton Witmer. 1 hour, 59 minutes. Unrated. Streaming on Amazon Prime, Tubi TV.
Ethan Duanes (Drew Matthews) has a problem.
His problem is life.
Ethan is a locksmith but he cannot unlock the secret to happiness. All he can do is remember an earlier time when his parents were still alive and his younger brother a constant companion. The world seemed better then.
Now, the world isn’t better. His parents have passed away and his brother, Shane (Ryan Davenport), has started a family. The ancestral home, like Ethan, is slowly succumbing to rot and ruin, and the future seems as dark as the night shifts Ethan works.
One night, as Ethan is driving back to his rented house after a call, he comes across a dead deer in the road. He notices something moving inside the deer, a kind of insect or arachnid. He takes the carcass home, builds a container to hold the strange creature and lures it inside with cuts of meat. Then, he proceeds to care for it.
Until the creature breaks out. And people in the community begin to die.
That is the premise of “The Arbors,” a “monster movie” that isn’t a “monster movie.” It is less about things that go bump in the night as things that go bump in the heart.
“The Arbors” earns high marks for its layers and its obvious pathos. Ethan is a sympathetic loser to whom many people can relate: He is overwhelmed by life, fearful of change and nostalgic for the simpler times of the past. This theme of resistance to change operates throughout the movie – Ethan says it more than once by rhetorically asking, “Can’t this all be over?” His fidelity to the past is expressed in other ways, too. He is constantly sorting through photographs of him and his brother when they were kids. He gives his brother the gift of a toy soldier from a game they played as children called Out of Time! Ethan has kept the game; his brother absent-mindedly drops the toy soldier on the floor and before movie’s end it returns to Ethan’s possession. Ethan tells his young niece, Robin (Sarah Cochrane), he hopes to purchase the family home and restore it so that he may live there again. When Shane reveals he and his wife, Lynn (Alexandra Rose) are contemplating a move out of state, Ethan becomes agitated and for once, shows strong emotion.
Where “The Arbors” fails is its glacial pacing and the infuriating passivity of its viewpoint character. Ethan doesn’t simply miss the past; he is mired in it and will never escape. He rejects chance after chance to change his circumstances, at one point avoiding a former friend who has offered to take him away from his ennui and show him the world. In truth he doesn’t want to escape, and he would draw everybody around him into the tar pit of his inertia. This slow vortex of apathy oozes over both character and audience alike, preserving the misery in a sluggish and vapid shadowbox that never answers the question “Why?”
And when the “monster” kills people who have threatened Ethan’s attempt to restore the past to the present, “The Arbors” morphs into “Donnie Darko” and the audience is left with a new batch of questions.
What’s remarkable about “The Arbors” is that it was shot in the Winston-Salem, N.C., area in 25 days on a budget of $14,000, then finished for another $11,000.
Witmer deserves kudos for trying to rise above the meager expectations of the genre, but “The Arbors” has some deficiencies that outweigh its virtues. Still, it’s not a bad movie. Just slow, with unanswered questions and motivations. I expect Witmer will do better his next time out of the gate.
I grade “The Arbors” a C+.
Through much of “The Arbors” I kept telling myself, “Wow, the kid playing the principal misfit really looks like a young Dennis Quaid.”
That’s how I managed to stay entertained when “The Arbors” got batty or the story cryptic or incoherent, which wasn’t all the time. Just much of the time.
Del blew a lot of words summing the plot. I’ll do it for you with one, short sentence: Rogue nostalgia is a deadly when you’re connected to person-sized spider with a mammal-like mouth packing white shark teeth.
One of my biggest problems with the movie is that I have no idea how or why Ethan and pseudo-spider are telepathically linked. If I was the angry wayward mutant arachnid, I’d be pissed at Ethan for putting me in a cage when I was but a maggot or whatever. That would be reason enough to eat his eyeballs rather than serve as an executioner for the human.
And, who the hell where those guys in the white hazmat suits? And, why didn’t at least one of them have a gun for self-defense because they were chasing an aberration of nature?
I don’t mind that “The Arbors” portrays itself as horror but is really about shitty, navel-gazing stuff like hurt feelings. People, after all, are more frightening than zombie werewolves with rabies waving Trump is My President flags. But, at times, I felt like I was watching, I don’t know, “Kramer v. Kramer” or “Steel Magnolias.”
The problem is that the film seems to want to get good and then backs off. A scene of driving at night might be too long. Or there’s the crappy voice acting when Ethan is talking to someone on his flip phone. Yes, director, I get it that Ethan is stuck in a time that no longer exists. And, why the fuck does “Connie” care about Ethan? She didn’t even sign his high school yearbook. What proof is there that she let him feel her up when they were teenagers or that they went to prom together? She materializes, tries to get him to leave town, and then de-materializes.
On the plus side, “The Arbors” provides a holistic moodiness as the backdrop of life in an unnamed town somewhere in the foothills of the Appalachians. Everything seems afflicted by Ethan’s desperate unhappiness. I liked the score. It meshed nicely with the moodiness.
The movie gets a C- because it failed to meet its promise to me like life failed to meet its promise to Ethan. It didn’t allow him to stay 13 years old forever. And, the film failed to create a sympathetic, lonely man with control of a monster who I could like.
Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.