An ambitious, sometimes tense, slow-burner that tries its best to fill you with dread. ‘Little Joe’ is the latest offering from Austrian director Jessica Hausner, a film steeped in themes of climate change, human ignorance to the natural world and our innate desire to play God. Single mother Alice is a senior plant breeder dedicated to her work for a corporation whose focus is developing new species. However, after bringing a sample home as a gift for her son, it soon becomes clear that the natural world cannot be controlled.
The key too ‘Little Joe’ is in the dread, however, the dread doesn’t last long enough. Hausner weaves the camera brilliantly through most scenes using a variety of techniques that will make you feel uneasy. Supported by a fantastic and absurd score that at times sounds like the score to a Kurosawa film, and also uses foley sounds as varied as dogs barking to doors creaking. Its sporadic use throughout sparks moments of anxiety and accompanies Hausner’s camera work as the film’s primary success in achieving that desired effect. The director’s vision is embedded into the film’s fabric, in the interesting use of colour across costume, and setting which injects the sterile environments with a twisted personality. The deep red of the plant leans into the conventions of danger and reinforces the film’s messages surrounding climate change, and how the natural world reacts to human ignorance.
Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw excel in their respective roles, Beecham received a best actress nod from Cannes upon its release at the festival last year. Both actors embody the quirks and ambiguity of their characters which forces the audience to continually question their motives. Beecham in the lead role as Alice Woodard, a successful plant breeder but struggling mother. Alice’s relationship with her son is strained and only struggles further when she decides to bring work home. The juggle of work and family is at the core of the character and Beecham plays on these themes to create an interesting, paranoia-filled protagonist. The relationship between Alice and Chris (Ben Whishaw) oozes discomfort from the beginning. However, as far as instilling a sense of dread into the audience neither character nor their relationship manages to succeed at doing so. There is little emotional connection ever created between the audience and these characters which makes it difficult to invest in them or fear for their safety. The same can be said for the rest of the supporting cast who lean into the unsettling nature required by the film’s mood, but this doesn’t ensure that the attention of the audience will be held throughout.
Little Joe’s narrative is ambitious, its goal is to slowly get under your skin and let the discomfort fester. However, at no point is this achieved, aside from a couple of successful jump-scares, which are achieved by excellent framing and a score that carries most of the workload. The sense of dread doesn’t catch on in the film’s early stages and as a result leaves you behind as you’re left to watch an absurd, slow-burning narrative unfold with no connection to the characters or investment in the events taking place. The early promise shown in the set, sound design, and the themes are let down by the film’s lack of punch in the first act which could have been the set-up for a fascinating and disturbing horror.
Written by Conor Crooks
STAR RATING –★★
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