Directed by Jonathan Siebel
Starring Dieterich Gray, Tania Nolan, Caleb Caldwell
Short Film Review by George Nash
When a young Amish boy is caught watching his parents during a moment of intimacy, Christy (Dieterich Gray) and Mathilda (Tania Nolan), must decide if this was just harmless curiosity or if something darker exists within their son – a perverted will that must be broken with the whip. Beautifully shot and harrowingly realised, Jonathan Siebel’s Break the Will is a film of conflictions that is both remarkably layered and utterly compelling.
Ask any cinephile, and they’ll tell you that lesson 101 of short filmmaking is as follows: keep things simple. Break the Will is fully aware of its own medium’s constraints and limitations, and through writer/director Siebel’s masterful understanding of typical genre conventions, it is a simple idea that makes for a film that is anything but.
Astute, meticulous camera shots open the narrative, where, in the foreboding darkness of night, 12-year-old Joshua (Caleb Caldwell) is trapped in a state of restlessness as his pet mouse scurries about its own glass jar prison. The patience of Siebel’s direction is instantly disconcerting, even before the silence is broken by the shrieks coming from behind the door of his parents’ bedroom. At first, it is unclear if these are cries of pain or pleasure, and like any naïve pre-teen, investigation seems to be Joshua’s most appropriate course of action. Through subdued, if not slightly enigmatic, beginnings, Siebel begins weaving his rich thematic web here as love and violence become uncomfortably intertwined and parental relationships – that of child and mouse, parent and child, and parent and God – are shown as distanced and conflicted through subtle use of figurative prisons, closed doors and, later, desolate landscapes. Similarly, by often excluding us from what characters explicitly see, Siebel invites us to explore the concept of looking itself, and ultimately the blinding power it can often have.
Siebel - whose body of work includes car and electrical commercial competition entries, as well as a highly impressive sub-minute short involving a moving camera and a rat – offers up a solemn examination of theme and character that is both calculated and mature, even as it slowly moves into its less ambiguous, more explicitly violent moments. On the surface, the main crux of the narrative might appear to be the punishment of suspected perverted tendencies, however, Siebel’s piece is never simply face-value, and there are character wells that run much deeper. In leaving the camera fixed that second longer on the lingering stare of a father caught somewhere between duty and compassion, Break the Will soon becomes a tale of both exterior and interior conflict where Joshua may not be the only one being punished. Despite its 20-minute run time, this is a film packed to the rafters which is as layered, textured, and deliberate as Roham Rahmanian’s confident and beautiful cinematography.
There is a true power and elegance to Siebel’s filmmaking, exploring themes far more universal and timeless than the period setting would suggest, with revelations that really hit home in a narrative seemingly absent of one.
Despite shavings of melodrama that pepper the narrative towards the end, Break the Will is an altogether accomplished, fluid snapshot of an existence dictated by rigid social, familial, and religious structures.