Review: ‘Michael’ kicks off Fantastic Fest with disturbing character study

There are certain films that challenge viewers simply by existing.  They are these dares, issued by the filmmaker, that linger out there, and it’s up to each viewer to decide if they want to take that dare and see whatever it is, whatever taboo has been broken.  It’s an entire school of cinema that many people avoid as viewers, and I don’t blame them.  So much of our culture is designed to make us feel good or to placate us or to reinforce the things we already believe that it’s incongruous when we encounter something that seems genuinely determined to hurt us.

“Michael” is the debut film from writer/director Markus Schleinzer, and it’s a nasty bit of business, a character portrait played dry, a dark joke told with a straight face, starring Michael Fuith as an insurance worker at an anonymous company who spends his days playing a sort of hide-in-plain-sight game of “look how normal I am” with his co-workers before going to his small and forgettable house where he keeps a young boy named Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger) locked in his disturbingly cozy basement.  There is nothing coy or ambiguous about Michael’s intent, either.  Wolfgang is his prisoner, his toy, his sex object, his punching bag, his thing.  He has completely cut this boy off from the world and broken him, and for much of the running time, the film simply observes the details of their daily existence.  What happens if the boy wants to go outside and do something?  What happens if he gets sick?  Can Michael take him to the doctor without being exposed?  What if something happens to Michael?  Would anyone ever know?

Schleinzer has a very strong sense of place and a keen eye for emotional detail.  The film shows you everything but the actual abuse.  It would be easy to shock if they took you into the room and tried to recreate the horror that Wolfgang lives through each time Michael rapes him, but by intentionally playing around that detail, by showing you the mundane way that their lives have started to blend into something shared and, although sick and horrifying, somewhat like normal, Schleinzer’s film has a more genuinely unsettling power.

Fuith looks like young Werner Herzog playing Buster Bluth from “Arrested Development,” and he makes for an ideal bland-faced monster.  He is fairly even-tempered most of the time, but on a few occasions, that mask slips and Fuith is able to play a glimpse of that lizard inside him, that amoral beast that knows how to pretend to be like everyone else.  It’s an ugly piece of acting, without ego, and Fuith is very good in the film.  I really don’t know how I would even approach directing a performance like Rauchenberger’s in the film, but it’s impressive work.

There’s a clinical quality to the cinematography by Gerald Kerkletz, and there’s a real chill to the thing that is very skilled, very intentional.  I think the film is ultimately so direct and so uncomplicated that it’s not very lasting.  I think it builds to a predictable punch, although well-executed, and for all the obvious ability that Schleinzer has as a filmmaker, “Michael” is merely an introduction to his ability, not the greatest expression of it.

Strand Releasing picked up the film for US distribution, but no release date has been set.