Directed by Michael Coulombe Starring Todd James Jackson and Marita Gomsrud Short Film Review by Andrew Young
The opening titles for Michael Coulombe’s short horror/thriller suggest something rather different to what we are actually presented with. A cartoonish blood splatter and schlocky sound effects give an early impression of a low-budget gore-fest, but instead, Ax turns out to be a similarly low-budget but much less action-heavy look at a murder. It acts as a confessional piece, picking up with the murderer after he has committed his crime, diving into his unstable headspace as he ponders what he has done. It is an interesting idea and a pleasant surprise given what the film may have been, but despite the strong concept, it is lacking in execution, leaving the film similarly lacking in its ability to leave a lasting impression.
The murderous individual here is played by Todd James Jackson, both in the images and the sounds of the film, although not simultaneously. It is one of the film’s nicest moments when we realise after a couple of minutes of Jackson’s unsettling voice-over that the bloodied, axe-wielding man we are watching, is also the seemingly calm narrator guiding us through the story. The disjunction between what we see and what we hear is a fascinating puzzle and one of several engaging ideas Coulombe drops into his script. The idea of the killer’s madness is probed from the beginning, asking us to question “what drives a man to madness?”. His psychotic tendencies coming out in his belief that he is being spoken to by his axe suggest the sheer power his weapon has over him. The idea that the weapon, not the man, committed the crime also adds to the feeling that maybe Coulombe is making a comment about the danger and strange feelings of power generated by guns, particularly in the United States where they are more commonly held. Or maybe I’m clutching at straws.
Some good basic ideas are clearly there, but what Coulombe lacks is the technical flair to make things soar. Dmitry Karpovich’s swelling and eerie score does the job when it comes to creating an atmosphere but it is also rather derivative. The wish for some more imagination and invention is present in the visuals too. Coulombe tries to inject some panache here and there but none of it impresses greatly, like the bursts of light between shots that are perhaps more irritating than they are striking. It must be said that cinematographers Brandon Musselman and Candace Higgins come up trumps with a great shot of the killer, eyeing up his prey at the end of a foreboding corridor. Despite some ropey filmmaking, there is talent involved here, with Jackson’s performance being generally successful in adding a chilling edge to the story with his panicked expressions and monotonous delivery; the horrific elements of his character are embellished by good make-up work from Allison Bryan too.
Like his technique, the form Coulombe uses for his tale has its benefits and its drawbacks. The mode of a short film allows him to leave interesting questions unanswered, lingering in the air for the audience to ponder. It is also a nice idea to just show an extended confession as the basis for the film, as if we have to work out what has happened from just the denouement of a larger horror film. Except this possibility is diminished by the fact we actually see the murder, shown in flashback. It is the film’s biggest disappointment that the killing scene itself is really rather inert. The technique of cutting to black during the killing doesn’t really land because the sound effects are not striking enough to give the impression of looking away from something too horrible to watch – the very thing that can make this technique a successful one.
More than the aesthetics of the scene, it is the fact we cannot care enough about the characters that makes things fall flat. The short form hinders Coulombe here because we spend so little time with the characters. The murderer’s motives are hinted at in the exploration of “madness” but such a variety of possible triggers and such a lack of insight into the killer’s life mean his motive for killing feels a bit reduced to just “he’s a madman”. There is the suggestion he has been sent mad but it isn’t probed deeply enough to make us feel a great deal of sympathy. We don’t even have deep sympathy for his wife, the victim. The only characterisation the narration gives her is that she is apparently angelic but has been turned on anyway, so she is almost reduced to screaming axe-fodder. The film ends with the killer’s realisation: “what have I done?”. A line like this only has effect after a tragedy that the audience is truly involved in. Despite some good filmmaking in places, we can ultimately see the pain and we can hear the pain, but we cannot feel it.