Tightly constructed and confidently crafted, the low-budget Canadian psychological thriller Touched packs a lot of power into a small package. Clocking in at a shade under 75 minutes, the debut feature from writer-director Karl R. Hearne unfolds carefully, concisely, and thoughtfully, wasting absolutely no breaths in telling its ethereal, time shifting narrative. It’s easy to wish there was a bit more to everything by the time Touched wraps up, but what’s there showcases Hearne’s visual and storytelling chops exceptionally well.
Lonely by both circumstance and choice, apartment building landlord and superintendent Gabriel (Hugh Thompson), sticks to a rigid routine to get through his day to day life. That adherence to structure is upended when one of his best tenants, Caitlyn, goes missing. She uncharacteristically hadn’t paid her rent, there’s a stench coming from the apartment, and the young woman’s father (John MacLaren) seems nonplussed when Gabriel calls him to inquire about his daughter’s status. Shortly after contacting Caitlyn’s father, Gabriel returns to find the apartment emptied, her keys left behind, and a cheque for the delinquent rent. Still suspicious about what could’ve happened, Gabriel starts poking around for answers. His desire to investigate Caitlyn’s disappearance is spurred on by dreams and visions involving a ghostly nine year old girl (Lola Flanery), who has the same name as the missing woman. It’s possible that this vision could be Caitlyn at a younger age, a byproduct of Gabriel’s own mysterious past, or something else entirely.
Touched is the type of film where every visual, motion, and line of dialogue has a purpose. It’s as lean as a tenderloin and as complicated as a Rubik’s Cube. It’s apparent from the outset that there’s something off about Gabriel’s distant stare and stunted speech patterns, made vivid through Thompson’s perfectly pitched performance. Exactly what might be troubling or haunting Gabriel or why these visions have chosen to contact him aren’t as immediately identifiable. Touched is a bit like watching two mysteries overlapping and informing each other: the one regarding the tenant’s disappearance and the one about portions of Gabriel’s past that he has either forgotten about or repressed.
Hearne’s script is elaborately constructed to bounce between the past and present and the real world and the dream world, but he’s not one to employ anything potentially superfluous. If Gabriel speaks with a side character to find out information, there’s a focused purpose to it. The sequences between Thompson and Flanery, who has exceptional instincts for such a young actor, are psychologically playful, but packed with meaning that extends beyond the dialogue and into the performances and production design. While that does mean that Hearne’s rigid construction doesn’t leave room for any spicy touches or subtext outside the obvious, Touched still feels refreshingly devoid of red herrings for a psychological thriller. It’s the rare case of a genre effort that feels like the investigatory efforts of the main character and the audience are always aligned and in perfect harmony. Hearne wants viewers to think about everything intently instead of trying to pull one over on them.
Touched also looks and moves a lot better than the average microbudget thriller. While there are certainly the omnipresent gray tones that most would expect from such a thriller, Hearne utilizes bursts of vivid colour throughout Touched, captured in a gorgeous looking widescreen format. It’s a serious film about people dealing with traumas past and present, but Hearne isn’t afraid to throw in some vibrant touches, making for a film that’s thematically heavy but not one that’s depressing just to look at. The overall look and pacing of Touched is more in line with the highly observational works of prolific and artful Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Chinese master Jia Zhangke, which isn’t surprising when one considers that Hearne completed his postgraduate work in China, but one still doesn’t expect this sort of reserved and mournful spirit from a Canadian made thriller.
That last bit might make Touched sound a bit more high minded than it actually is, but the praise for Hearne’s talents are well earned and deserved. It’s as imaginative as sitting down with a vividly written short story, and should nicely as a calling card for the filmmaker and his leads. Most importantly, although Touched wraps up somewhat neatly, it will linger in the memory for quite some time after it’s over.
Touched opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, November 16, 2018.
Check out the trailer for Touched: