Mommy Issues: Kaleidoscope Twists A Strange Mother-Son Tale

In the nearly 60 years since Psycho was released, it has influenced countless thrillers and horror films. In particular, the horror and thriller genres, like Hitchcock himself, have always be enamoured with concepts from Freudian psychology. Last week Netflix debuted the small thriller, Kaleidoscope, starring Toby Jones. Directed by his brother, Rupert Jones, Kaleidoscope promises a small-scale thriller in the tradition of Psycho.

Synopsis

Carl is a middle-aged man, living alone, and recently released from prison. When he brings home Abby, a woman he’s met online, things quickly take a dark, unexpected turn. Despite warning her that alcohol ‘takes him places’, Abby encourages Carl to have a few drinks with her. After receiving a strange voicemail from his possessive, estranged mother, Carl blacks out, awakening the next morning to an inexplicable tragedy. His efforts to ‘fix’ things become unexpectedly complicated when his mother shows up on his doorstep.

Kaleidoscope Has Mommy Issues

Kaleidoscope clearly takes much of the emotional core of its story from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. At the heart of this thriller is Carl’s odd relationship with his estranged mother. We’re first introduced to Carl’s mother, Aileen, through an ominous voicemail. When she unexpectedly shows up to his apartment, there is clearly a strange tension that exists outside of Carl’s current dilemma. Consistent with the rest of Kaleidoscope’s narrative, there is nothing that is ever definitively established about their twisted mother-son relationship. It’s a story told with exchanged glances, awkward pauses, and passive-aggressive comments.

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Earlier in Kaleidoscope, Annie offhandedly remarks that some men either date women who are just like their mother, or the complete opposite of their mother. That comments runs uncomfortably beneath the surface of Carl and Aileen’s interactions. Like Psycho, there is an implied Oedipal theme that produces a couple of genuinely uncomfortably tense moments in Kaleidoscope. Aileen’s presence and her hidden motivations also serve to give the proceedings a little more tension.

A Twisting Story That is Equal Parts Rewarding and Frustrating

Kaleidoscope is a small, quiet, and slow film. Writer and director Rupert Jones, who is also the brother of star Toby Jones, adopts a unique approach to his storytelling. Like a ‘kaleidoscope’, which constantly changes and shifts its patterns, Jones’ story is constantly shifting its focus. Whether this shifting narrative reflects Carl’s unstable grasp on reality or just non-linear storytelling is somewhat ambiguous.

The effect of this approach to storytelling is an engaging mystery for audiences that offsets the slower pace of Kaleidoscope. Deciphering whether you’re watching actual events or fragments of Carl’s dreams, or even hallucinations of past and present mixed together, draws you in as a viewer. This is a challenging movie experience that demands commitment from its audience. Jones drops enough hints across the film to give viewers a few things to piece together. Yet Kaleidoscope never definitively answers most of the questions it raises.

Kaleidoscope may play too ambiguously with its story pieces.

In fact, Kaleidoscope may play too ambiguously with its story pieces. Mystery and suspense films that dangle clues like puzzle pieces are fun but, without a payoff, they can be equal parts frustrating. Jones’ climax feels a little underwhelming and the closing moments raise more questions. There was certainly a small feeling of frustration as the closing credits began rolling on the screen.

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Director Jones Impresses With a Unique Visual Style

Most of Kaleidoscope’s story unfolds in the cramped confines of Carl’s small, dimly lit apartment. Jones’ visual style, however, compliments his engaging story, hooking you further into Carl’s fragile mental state. Several overhead shots of the spiraling building staircase replicate the visual of a kaleidoscope toy. These shots along with Jones’ use of shifting different camera angles alternate between emphasizing the enormity of the situation in which Carl finds himself and the claustrophobia of his growing panic. Jones has an engaging style as a filmmaker that somewhat offsets the slow pace of his story.

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Impressive, Understated Performances

Toby Jones is one of those actors you instantly recognize. He’s usually never the biggest star in the film and he plays his roles so well that you almost don’t notice him. In Kaleidoscope, Jones is given the opportunity to take centre-stage and, not surprisingly, he excels. Much of Kaleidoscope depends on Jones’ ability to sell small ambiguous moments of paranoia and repressed resentment. Anne Reid similarly delivers a strong, understated performance as Carl’s manipulative mother. There’s no moment in Kaleidoscope that requires Reid to speak above a calm, ‘matter-of-fact’ tone and yet she capably convinces you that she has manipulated and controlled her son for years. Perhaps the most endearing performance in Kaleidoscope comes from Sinead Matthews as Abby. While she’s only in the film briefly, Matthews is sweet and almost a little sad as Carl’s misfortunate date.

Perhaps the most endearing performance in Kaleidoscope comes from Sinead Matthews as Abby.

Lots to Like, But Kaleidoscope is Missing Something

Kaleidoscope has an engaging mystery and some uncomfortable psychological undertones. Jones shows a good eye as a director and all of the performances are strong. As Kaleidoscope hits its climax, you certainly feel the desperation of Carl. Yet it still feels like there’s something missing from this small thriller. It doesn’t always feel urgent or cinematic. There’s nothing bad about a film that requires some commitment from its audience but Kaleidoscope doesn’t always hook you in as much as it should. There is definitely a lot to like about this little thriller, but it’s appeal may be limited to a smaller audience.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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