Directed by #JuliaNoel
Film review by Nathanial Eker
Baffling, confusing, intriguing. Just three words that describe the enigmatic 13 Mysteries; a bizarre fusion of imaginative science fiction and neo-political nonsense. Clearly a passion project for writer-producer-director-composer Julia Noel, the film revels in its weirdness, urging actors to be anything but naturalistic as its story devolves into pure madness. It’s unfortunate then, that a good portion of that madness ends up being quite dull.
‘The Investigator’ (Edward Parker Bolman) visits the Twilight Zone-esque habitat of New Cactus City in an alternate 1970. Through interviews with citizens, he discovers a handful of mysteries (thirteen guesses how many), that seem to link to an extra-terrestrial incident in the city’s past.
You’d be forgiven for assuming 13 Mysteries to be a collection of stylistically coherent short films bound by a greater narrative framing device. The script immediately grips its audience with talk of desert-telephones and mysterious prophets that live in caves. Had Noel expanded upon these creative ideas, 13 Mysteries could’ve been a well realised anthology sci-fi piece.
Sadly, it instead quickly devolves into an ‘election conspiracy’ narrative that is anything but stimulating. Noel’s decision to craft exclusively expository dialogue is a welcome one when paired with other-worldly sci-fi ideas. Regrettably though, when the middle third uses the same clunky speech patterns to explain something as dully realised as political conspiracy, it fails spectacularly.
Aesthetically, the film is thirteen times stronger. The monochromatic colour palette paired with a mostly barren set makes for a superb mise-en-scené that carries the majority of the film. The camera is appropriately disorientating too, favouring dutch angles and close ups that bluntly highlight the oddness of the players’ staccato speech pattern.
Noel experiments with acting styles antonymical to typical Stanislavskian naturalism. The densely rhythmic speech patterns are appealing in how starkly unsettlingly they are and this strange intent permeates a sense of alternate reality throughout. Actors are freed of all ‘normal’ restrictions; of motivation and emotional response, and are instead allowed to experiment with ticks and expressions. Characters thus range in subtly; Edward Parker Bolman’s Investigator barely cracks a smile, while Buzzsaw’s Mayor Baird gurns and pops his pupils with amusing ferocity and frequency.
A non-conformist film like 13 Mysteries that aims to subvert formalist filmic techniques is almost obligated to boast a weird and wonderful soundtrack. Fortunately, despite a few sound editing issues, the film’s score is its most stand out element. As if pulled straight from the cartridge of a Sega Megadrive game, Noel’s synth-infused compositions transport the audience to another realm, one where science and fantasy have merged. Think Ecco the Dolphin meets Stranger Things.
13 Mysteries is a compelling, experimental dive into an unknown world. Though it does eventually reach a surprisingly conventional conclusion, its mise-en-scené is anything but conformist. Regrettably, this enjoyably silly farce is hindered by a gloomy mid-section that bores more than it intrigues. However, the promise of additional mysteries keeps the momentum alive, and it ultimately delivers a sense of confused catharsis.
If you can stomach the bureaucratic direction of the plot, the unnerving aesthetic and especially the haunting score might yet make this a mystery worth solving.