Review: ‘The Transfiguration,’ a film by Michael O’Shea

by Andrew Parker

The unique and haunting thriller The Transfiguration defies classification. It’s a vampire movie, a serial killer thriller, a coming of age story, a teen romance, an inner city drama, an anti-bullying screed, and a downtrodden reflection of grief and regret. For his first feature, writer-director Michael O’Shea has crafted an unnerving sort of film that rarely gets made these days. Think of George A. Romero’s Martin by way of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Boaz Yakin’s underrated Fresh and you would be closer to explaining its tone, but still not quite there. It’s not always successful, but its clarity of tone and vision make The Transfiguration a stunning, chilling, and promising debut work.

Quiet teenager Milo (Eric Ruffin) lives in Queens, New York with his grieving, useless, former gangbanger brother (Aaron Moten) after the death of their parents. He’s picked on, bulled, and tortured constantly by the gang members in his inner city hood. He’s a shy, seemingly defenseless outsider, and as such he develops a friendship and flirtation with Sophie (Chloe Levine), a white girl of roughly the same age who lives with an abusive grandfather and also lost her parents.

The twist to what might be a tale of friendship overcoming hardship and grief is that Milo isn’t a good kid. He has become so obsessed with vampire movies and the culture surrounding these mythologized monsters that he believes he is one, often slinking out in the middle of the night to rob unsuspecting marks, kill them, and drink their blood. Milo believes that he’s getting stronger as a vampire, and that soon there will be no containing his darker impulses. Before he goes over to the dark side completely, however, he hatches a plot to do some good for Sophie and his violent neighbourhood.

It’s hard to pinpoint where one might begin to analyze O’Shea’s work. The Transfiguration comes packed with so many allusions and metaphors that any number of cultural or literary critiques of the film could be relevant and valuable. Everything about Milo’s descent into madness could be read as a reflection of the same kind of grief that keeps his brother glued to the couch all day, a side-effect of being bullied by potentially worse monsters than he is, or of something unspoken and unseen in the past of his parents that requires a lot more unpacking. Has Milo’s environment twisted him or has Milo got so fed up with his environment that he’s attempting to fight back? On a first viewing, it’s hard to pick one of these threads and stick with it, and O’Shea at times feels like he’s struggling to keep all these elements together as a filmmaker. There are some slow, wheel-spinning moments in The Transfiguration that could use some trimming, and the pace could be picked up without sacrificing tone and momentum, but overall the ambition and large canvas of The Transfiguration is fascinating to behold in the moment.

In their depiction of New York as a often scary, overwhelming place where most residents are barely surviving by any means necessary, O’Shea and cinematographer Sung Rae Cho are most indebted to the 1970s and 80s work of auteurs like Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara, Paul Schrader, and John McNaughton. As a vampire film, O’Shea openly name checks Martin and Let the Right One In within the body of the film as major, perhaps obvious influences; the former in that the viewer never really knows if Milo is a vampire or just a psychopath, and the latter in its depiction of a young adult romance blossoming under harsh circumstances. It’s a delicate balance held together by O’Shea’s wise decision to never lapse into melodrama or horror movie conventions. It’s a dirty, sinister kind of film that leaves an impression on viewers because it feels like something that could really happen. It’s not supernatural or overblown with sleaze. It’s cold, calculating, and able to get under the skin, punctuated nicely by moments of coal black humour.

While it sometimes feels unclear as to what O’Shea wants his film to symbolize, he knows exactly how he wants Milo to move, think, and act, and that creates the grounding influence The Transfiguration needs to succeed as a drama and thriller. In what will hopefully be a noticed leading performance, Ruffin imbues Milo with equal parts gentility and menace. Even when Milo commits horrendous acts of violence, the viewer wants to feel sympathy for him. The viewer knows that Milo and Sophie are broken people who deserve more happiness than the world has given them, but we also know that Milo has to – in some way – pay for all the things he’s done.

The final twenty minutes of The Transfiguration will likely leave audiences divided, but when it comes to a film like the one O’Shea has created, such varying opinions are worthwhile. O’Shea is asking a lot of his audience and asking a lot of questions with his material, but he also provides no obvious answers. In a film that at its basest level is about the nature of life and death, could you feel comfortable watching a film that spoon feeds you everything? If you want to be spoon fed, you’ll loathe The Transfiguration. If you don’t mind putting some effort into what could have been a standard chiller in lesser hands, you’ll at least appreciate O’Shea’s work even if you don’t fully enjoy it. This is a smart film, and in this kind of genre, there aren’t many smart films being made anymore. The Transfiguration is a solid cause for celebration.

The Transfiguration opens at The Royal in Toronto on Friday, May 26, 2017.

Check out the trailer for The Transfiguration:

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