A psychologically and philosophically fascinating blend of supernatural and metaphysical thrills, Canadian filmmaker Justin McConnell’s cleverly written and surprisingly emotional chiller Lifechanger has boundless originality that punches in a much higher weight class than the film’s modest budget would suggest. A unique meshing of an action packed and fugitive on the run picture and a sometimes grotesque horror movie about a romantically obsessed stalker, Lifechanger spins a tale of misguided love and repeated loss that’s as kinetic and exciting as it is challenging.
A murderous and increasingly desperate shapeshifter known simply as Drew is in a constant race against time. Able to create biological copies of his victims that leave his hapless and initially unaware prey literally drained of their essence, Drew has a finite amount of time in each of his biological vessels before the bodies start to degrade and decompose. Drew used to have more time in each host body, but as of late the degeneration process has been sped up. If Drew doesn’t have a body to leap into, death is probably likely, but survival is almost secondary to the shapeshifter at this point. The main goal is to stay intimately close to Julia (Lora Burke), a former love that Drew still pines for. She doesn’t know that Drew is – in various sexes, ages, and forms – the kind-hearted person that sits next to her at the bar every night, or that the creature’s means of staying alive are deadly.
With each passing transformation, Lifechanger finds McConnell (Broken Mile, Skull World, The Collapsed) musing on different, frequently unsavory aspects of human nature. Most naturally, Lifechanger is a darkly tinted work that wonders if someone who can’t stay in one place for very long could ever truly know the nature of love, but there’s a lot more going on in the margins of Drew’s physical changes and increasing desperation. Whenever Drew (who narrates his inner thoughts throughout, and is played off screen by Bill Oberst Jr.) replicates a new host body, the challenges faced are different. Lifechanger starts with Drew inhabiting the body of a woman (Elitsa Bako), who has to explain to her boyfriend why she’s been mysteriously missing for three days. Next, Drew bounces into the body of a handsome detective (Steve Kasan) who can get close to Julia, and when that fails quicker than Drew would’ve liked, the creature holes up inside a cheating doctor (Sam White) stuck in a loveless marriage. As Drew continues to cycle through bodies, McConnell finds a cleverly fast paced way to give viewers a sampling of what the film’s less than ethical main character has gone through for most of its life. One wonders if Drew is the one naturally decomposing on the inside from wear and tear or if taking on the problems of his victims has finally begun to take an ultimate toll. It’s a nifty and thoughtful way of depicting a shapeshifter, a boogeyman rooted in history that’s rarely depicted on screen.
It sounds like a strange point of comparison, but Lifechanger plays out almost like old episodes of The Fugitive, if Dr. Richard Kimble had been a virus. Although Drew has a final endgame in mind and has to keep rapidly moving on out of necessity, each passing journey comes with a new set or wrinkles. It’s like watching someone who just escaped from prison frantically trying to stay out of harm’s way long enough for the heat to die down and to resume a normal, stress free life. At the same time, Drew passes from person to person, living off their biological traits and memories in the same way a disease kills a host.
Most of Drew’s incarnations have something to say about the ever evolving definition of love (again, questioning if someone can truly love someone if the physical and psychological definitions of the term keep changing), but some, most notably a victim played by Rachel VanDuzer, bring a considerable amount of depth and texture to an already complicated story. Lifechanger might be an unlikely erotic thriller, but there’s also a lot that McConnell finds to say about gender politics and fluidity, dishonesty in relationships, and forms of depression that are most closely associated with loss and grief. It’s more weird and kinetic than it is terrifying, but that’s a perfect setting for a thriller as insightful as Lifechanger.
It’s also a fascinating step forward for McConnell as a director and writer, and Lifechanger is handily his finest work to date. As mentioned, the material is strong, and the dialogue is appropriately philosophical and pitched at the level of a soft-boiled old school noir without ever sounding cliche or trite. The emotional weight of Lifechanger increases the more one learns about Julia’s life and not from any of Drew’s transformations, which is the absolute right choice to make something like this feel like more than a gimmick laden thriller without a moral centre.
The pacing is the most harrowing thing about Lifechanger. Since the viewer never knows how long Drew can sustain each of his appearances, there’s a marked level of unpredictability that’s achieved without McConnell’s story spinning too wildly into different headings. There are plenty of well reasoned, but creative ways that McConnell comes up with to keep Drew’s single-minded mission from physically or logistically falling apart, creating a new take on shapeshifters that hasn’t been attempted before. Even on a visual level, McConnell’s talents have take a quantum leap, with Lifechanger boasting some low key, but impressive location choices, production design, and cinematography that’s more gorgeously assured than any of his other projects to date. Lifechanger is the work of a filmmaker truly coming into their own, and it will be interesting to see what McConnell has planned to top it.
On one hand, it would be easy to wish that Lifechanger were a bit longer and slightly more epic than the stripped down and intelligent thriller that it is, but at the same time, McConnell seems to have hit a sweet spot that works well enough for the material he had in mind. At any rate, Lifechanger is one of the most original, inventive, and stimulating Canadian thrillers to come out in quite some time, and its powers are an unnerving, unexpected, and very much welcome change of pace.
Lifechanger opens in Toronto (Carlton Cinemas), Ottawa (Mayfair Theatre), and Calgary (Globe Theatre) on Friday, December 28, 2018. It hits VOD everywhere on Tuesday, January 1, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Lifechanger: