Critics have inherent bias. When constructing a review, it’s important to note the specific things you see in a film that may push your review in either direction regardless of the quality of the film. Suffice to say, I approached The Blazing World with caution, knowing my predisposition towards an aesthetic of saturated neon lighting and synth-based scores drew me towards the film. Inside the package, yet, was a film with a narrative great enough to warrant the beauty.
First time feature writer/director Carlson Young also stars in The Blazing World, based on earlier short film inspired by her dreams. Yet it avoids the trappings of a vanity project thanks to its honesty. Margaret Winter (Carlson Young) is a woman haunted by the grief of seeing her twin die as a child. She’s about to take her own life when she’s summoned back to her childhood home to collect some belongings before her mother (Vinessa Shaw) and father (Dermot Mulruney) move into a new home.
At first, Young leads us a bit astray as to what the movie will be. There’s playful teasing of the spiritual plane, the sense that something’s not right in Margaret’s world. This manifests itself in the odd discomfort of the conversations between Margaret and her parents; talks that could be their usual dysfunctional way of communicating. However, there’s then the editing by James K. Crouch that skips around time or place, often for a moment. And, naturally, you have scenes where the sheer visual and auditory splendor transports us into a place immediate, yet foreign.
For instance, a scene where Margaret goes to visit a bar known as “The Woods” to meet up with her old friends. As one of them (played by Soko) sings, deep saturated colors as photographed by DP Shane F. Kelly permeate, and the score by Isom Innis begins to take over. Is it my aesthetic sweet spot? Sure. That doesn’t take away from it beings an enveloping moment of surrealism, though. This moment is a transition, a harbinger of whats to come, as a strange man (Udo Kier) waits in the wings.
Here, The Blazing World reveals itself. Margaret follows the man into an elaborate layer full of imagery drawn from horror, fantasy, and fantastical horror all the same. He gives Margaret the opportunity she’s been looking for: if she can acquire three keys from three separate doors that leads into three separate realms, she can have her sister back. Udo Kier is, as usual, spellbinding as this mystical figure, pushing Alice farther into the rabbit hole.
Some may call the narrative of The Blazing World predictable. Certainly there are echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth, Labyrinth, the works of David Lynch, and Alice in Wonderland. It even shares it title with an earlier work. Yet, there are echoes of fiction in most fiction. These stories wouldn’t exist without stories prior to them. The Blazing World is merely the latest, and it’s a welcome addition to the canon becomes its commitment to exploring Margaret’s psyche beyond the vague message of the film being “about trauma™”.
In front of the camera, Carlson Young reaches a new career high point by crafting a character who has put up walls to stop the fear from getting in, despite leaving room for darkness to enter. Behind the camera, Carlson Young is a bonafide storyteller, coming at Margaret’s story with the sort of confidence and understanding that filmmakers so often lack when exploring the psyche. As a full-on artist, Carlsong Young has her voice completely in The Blazing World. It’s one that worth hearing.
The script by Young and co-writer Pierce Brown us through a series of scenarios that take us deeper into who Margaret is. Fantastical, often horrific, landscapes are merely the stage for Margaret to confront her issues. Each sequence gives a different insight into her character, but they also highlight what her mother and father have endured. Therefore, Young, Shaw, and Mulruney, put on an acting showcase full of explosively subtle pathos.
Margaret’s journey culminates in a fitting finale that ties up her journey in a way that’s not neat, but neither is life. What matters is the cathartic understanding that The Blazing World comes to. Initially, I was worried that the aesthetics of the film would sway me into giving it a higher score than it may have deserved. You can rest assured that The Blazing World is an outstanding film with zero qualifications. –James Preston Poole
The Blazing World is still pending a wide release date. For continued Sundance 2021 Coverage keep an eye on our Twitter page and this site!