Longlegs Review | As Above, So Below

by Andrew Parker

Longlegs, the latest horror thriller from writer-director Oz Perkins, is an example of less being more in the most positive and unsettling ways. While there’s a certain familiarity to some of the serial killer sub-genre cliches being employed throughout Longlegs, there’s no arguing with the results. In terms of pacing, composition, and overall intensity, Longlegs is without peer. The dialogue and storytelling might show some dents in Perkins’ armour, but through the almost lost art of keeping things equal parts etherial and simplistic, Longlegs emerges as a memorably awful time at the movies (and I mean “awful” as a distinct positive).

After displaying an almost preternatural knack for sussing out murder suspects and understanding the mindset of psychopaths, rookie FBI Agent Lee Harker (Maika Monroe) is transferred to work with a more seasoned detective (Blair Underwood) to investigate an ongoing series of grisly crimes dating back thirty years. An unseen puppet master of sorts, known only as Longlegs (Nicolas Cage), has somehow been able to convince the fathers of seemingly happy families in and around the Pacific Northwest into murdering their partners and kids. As soon as Agent Harker joins the case, the criminal mastermind begins sending her cryptic, Zodiac styled message and clues that hint at a shared history between the two.

Right from the dreary looking, but immaculately filmed cold open that kicks things into high gear immediately, it’s clear that the audience is in the hands of a masterful stylist and craftsperson; someone who knows precisely where they want the audience to look, either to deliver visual information or to create a clever distraction. The visual palate of each shot is purposefully monotone, but always inclusive of a single, vibrant colour designed to stand out. Perkins (Gretel & Hansel, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) keeps returning to a visual motif of placing things inside of squares and boxes that proves profoundly effective, symbolic, and at times quite claustrophobic. Like Spielberg did with the shark in Jaws, Perkins refrains from showing Cage’s villain in full view until absolutely necessary. The story is set in the 90s (and for a few flashbacks, the 70s), but there’s nothing nostalgic or showy about the period accuracy. Similarly, despite the noteworthy satanic nature of the story at hand, Perkins isn’t taking any shortcuts or going for obvious iconography. It’s not that this is a film whose restraint is its long suit, but rather one that moves with a pinpoint sense of purpose and vision.

Which is great, when one considers that the actual story of Longlegs is highly derivative of thrillers from the 90s and early 2000s. It’s edgy, gory, bleak, and ominous, but when it comes to the genre, those traits never go out of style. Biblical killers speaking in codes, allusions to literature and selected bits of pop culture, and cults of personality are part and parcel here, as is the industrial leaning sound track and sound design (which is ambitious, crystal clear, and highly unsettling – offering a different experience depending on where one sits in the theatre). If one thinks back to other films reminiscent of Perkins’ work here, it’s completely understandable, as Longlegs is a film that works primarily because it’s great at what it’s trying to accomplish.

Perkins’ level of craft and execution goes a long way towards papering over some of the shortcomings in his script. A lot of the dialogue in Longlegs is patently ludicrous and wildly overwritten to the point of rarely ever sounding organic and human. Whenever someone needs to explain a theme or deliver exposition, no one in Longlegs ever sounds like a real person, regardless of how locked in the performers are to Perkins’ milieu. Similarly, Longlegs builds towards a reveal that will only shock viewers who haven’t been paying attention to everything that comes before it. 

In a lot of projects, these setbacks could be deal breakers, but despite the fact that I cringed at some of the dialogue, and I never once doubted where Longlegs was headed, I was intensely captivated the entire time. It places a stranglehold on the viewer’s attention, and it hardly ever has to shout to achieve that feeling of captivity. It’s not always the destination that matters most to a film’s success, but rather the steps that lead towards the anticlimax or place of resolution, and that’s certainly the case here. The ending can be seen coming from quite a ways off, but everything leading up to it is handled in consistently surprising ways. The specifics aren’t in doubt, but paradoxically, Longlegs is a film where anything can happen at any time and not in the expected order of events most conventional thrillers would follow.

Monroe makes a compelling, competent, and tough heroine, and she’s surrounded by a quartet of outstanding supporting performances that inform her character nicely. For his part, Cage (who is scarcely glimpsed in the film’s pre-release promotional material, and with good reason) has modulated his particular style of gonzo acting to hone in on a menacing, vampiric frequency that’s memorably insane and off-putting to look at. Underwood hasn’t had a role this meaty and layered in quite some time, and it’s nice to see Perkins’ give him the ball at some points to steer the story along. Kiernan Shipka shows up for a small, but pivotal part as and institutionalized, disturbed young woman and one of the few people to ever survive the killer’s wrath. And in the film’s most remarkable turn, Alicia Witt puts in some intricately realized work as Agent Harker’s devout, hoarder mother. All of Perkins’ principals give their best to his vision, and while some of the writing lets them down, their dedication to the overall cause and aesthetic never wavers.

Longlegs is the type of blood soaked nightmare designed to push the viewer to their absolute limits, but it’s also quite cleverly not doing more than it absolutely has to. There’s a distinct sense of satanic depravity and lack of moral restraint, but Perkins never allows his latest film to devolve into senseless overkill. It’s a film that knows it wants to scare the audience and make them queasy, but never at the expense of brevity or visual tact. On a very base level at the bottom of the iceberg, Longlegs is a dumb serial killer movie throwback; the kind of story where if you think about it long enough, the whole thing falls apart. But the bulk of what can be seen by the viewer is majestic in its ugliness and fright factor.

Longlegs opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, July 12, 2024.

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