Directed by #AndrewErickson
Film review by Nathanial Eker
Drugs, murder, and ladies who lunch. No, this isn't the name of a hair metal band, these are the three driving forces of writer-director Andrew Erickson's Toxicity, a surprising crime drama with a healthy amount of twists and turns and an unhealthy amount of heroin. While at times it suffers from wooden acting and typical generic tropes, the script is mostly strong and the majority of performances hit the appropriate emotional beats. The unique direction of the plot allows it to stand on its own and the mother-son relationship in particular adds something fresh to a well-trodden genre.
Desi Larkin is an ex-drug addict who discovers his junkie wife Jade dead, apparently having committing suicide. All eyes are on the unfortunate widower as he moves in with his upper class mother, Rose. Things start to heat up for the mother and son when Detective Sandy Lane looks deeper into the case and begins to suspect fowl play.
The indisputable highlight of Toxicity is Vicky Dawson as Rose Larkin, who soars in every scene with a tragic fragility that is both painful and enthralling to watch. Dawson sews the seeds of character development from the very beginning, while single handedly making her scenes more engaging and upsetting. It speaks volumes that Rose's social standing within her opulent lunch group is given far more screen time than the initial suspicious suicide; it's a far more compelling endeavour rife with social commentary on rich, white, capitalist America.
Regrettably, the rest of the cast are a mixed bag. Aria Emory does an acceptable job as Desi and boasts considerable chemistry with Dawson. However, when taken in isolation, he's a little shallow and resorts mainly to grunts and unconvincing mean comments. The group of middle class suburban mothers are stereotypical, but believable enough to make Rose's pretentious plight compelling. This is aided greatly by a script that understands how people talk; one particular coffee meeting is gut-wrenching in an entirely organic way thanks to Erickson's strong grasp of motherly bragging.
Equally, his use of the mise-en-scene to support the bitter decline of his leads is just as inspired. While the editing, lighting, and cinematography do nothing ground-breaking, they service the greater narrative journey exponentially. Unfortunately, the sound and music are a less commendable, as the latter is frustratingly unpolished while the former is notable for how un-notable it is.
One element that is shocking for entirely the wrong reason, is drug dealer 'Leddy's' flippant use of the n-word, something neither necessary or appropriate within the context. Yes, he's a bit of a sleeze, but this is a questionable oversight from an otherwise well-devised script from Erickson.
It's refreshing to see a film with genuine twists and themes that are weaved subtly and effectively throughout. Pre-judgement, stereotyping, and classism are all there and demonstrated without overtness or obviousness. Making Desi a chef is a wise decision as his profession - looked down on by Rose's circle - acts as an effective motif throughout. Food is everywhere and the audience are consistently forced to remember that Desi isn't a biochemist or the owner of an app company; something that clearly bothers his mother.
Interestingly, the film seems to be stuck in a kind of indie-blockbuster limbo. In some ways it rejects the formulaic nature of the crime thriller, such as its use of Rose as an atypical protagonist, and through its unconventional conclusion. At the same time, however, many scenes, (particularly those involving the underwhelming Detective Lane) are almost written verbatim in the style of their intertexual influences. This dissonance between the indie and the blockbuster is by no means problematic, but it is interesting.
Overall, Toxicity is a mostly-satisfying endeavour. It is led by a powerful leading lady and while the supporting cast is a mixed bag, they generally perform fine. It is well-paced, well-directed, and has something relevant to say about the pre-conceptions of the white American elite and the 'grass is always greener mentality' of competitive capitalism. Moreover, at its simplest, it's an exciting 'whodunnit' with a strong conflict. While its ending may not be fully earned, it's still a shocking conclusion to a film that succeeds more than it fails.