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Realism in the Modern Vampire Tale of Writer/Director Michael O’Shea

Nate Fisher Reviews the 2016 Cannes Film, The Transfiguration, Now Opening Nationwide on VOD

The Transfiguration, Michael O’Shea, 2017, U.S.A., 1 hr. 37 min.

Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a small guy. Or maybe he isn’t; his body could be either a very tall twelve or a very short seventeen. This fact about The Transfiguration’s main character is left deliberately unclear by first-time writer/director Michael O’Shea. Whatever the case, he sure does get harassed a lot by the residents of his run-down New York City housing projects. As his brother Lewis (Aaron Moten) points out, their deceased mother gave them the kinds of names that would ensure they’d get picked on—one of the many ways Milo’s fate has been sealed by facts of his upbringing beyond his control. The teenage gang members on the block have taken to calling Milo “Freak” as he passes by them. But they only know vaguely that something is wrong, whereas we know in stark fashion just what that something is. Milo moonlights as a would-be vampire, committing ritualistic and scheduled murders in a mad hunger for human blood.

Eric Ruffin in The Transfiguration, courtesy of Strand Releasing

The blood, however, doesn’t sit well. Something causes Milo to puke shortly after the first kill that opens the film (Is it guilt? Plain old indigestion? Both?) O’Shea’s camera remains too distant to spell it out for us and Milo is briefly seen struggling to keep down other kills as the film goes on. Milo, like any adolescent, is a work in progress. His struggle with vampirism exists alongside a more mundane attempt to figure out  where he fits in his own body, social sphere, and fractured family. (His father died slowly of illness when Milo was 8, his mother committed suicide, and his brother remains distant, haunted by memories of prior military service). Milo is loaded with emotional weight: armed with a pen knife, years of trauma, and a back catalog of VHS vampire movies.

Milo watches these movies compulsively, checking them for “realism” and keeps copious notes of his Rules for Hunting. The record, much like the mood of the hunt and capture, is dispassionate and matter-of-fact. It is an emotional distance created partly by the effects of the camera. When Milo settles into a position to trap human prey, such as pretending to sleep under a bridge in Central Park, he is shown from an extreme wide angle with a vast depth of field. This framing pattern will pop up again and again as Milo is cast into his background; his identity dwarfed and largely reshaped by the poverty and loss that surrounds him. It is a world of all grays and jagged industrial exteriors; it is oppressive, seeming to bear only evil fruit.

When we meet Milo, the one constant in his life is his isolation. That ends with the arrival of a new neighbor Sophie (Chloe Levine). Sophie is as much an outcast as Milo and the only white person living on the block. Sophie has come to the building to live with her grandfather (an ostensibly abusive man) after her father dies. She is a troubled girl, taken to promiscuity and cutting. Milo and Sophie become friends and eventually lovers. As they grow closer, a question emerges: how will Milo incorporate this new lease on life into his world of secrecy and crime?

Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine in The Transfiguration, courtesy of Strand Releasing

There is a steady romantic swell to the interactions between the two that feels closer to the likable Hollywood ragamuffin trope than to the milieu of gritty urban realism. The two prove adept at finding abandoned lots to drink in and to swap weighty questions. Milo wants to know why Sophie cuts her wrists, even if he cannot resist trying to suck the blood out of one of Sophie’s fresh cuts! All instances of vampirism in the movie (as experience or genre) are followed immediately by character revelation: Sophie asks Milo, “What’s your favorite vampire movie?” And this suggestive probe is immediately followed by, “Do you miss her?” (a reference to Milo’s mother).

In one telling scene, Milo takes Sophie on a date to a repertory film theater in New York (perhaps Anthology Film Archives?) for a screening of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. The couples’ respective interests are clearly not in sync: Sophie is enthralled with Milo, and he with the film.  Such a moment will be embarrassingly familiar to any film obsessive who has made the mistake of trying to foist his or her hobby onto an all-too-obliging date with a trip to the art house.

The presence of someone eager to gain access to Milo’s guarded interior seems to give O’Shea’s camera license to explore that interiority in stark detail. One revealing scene has Milo wandering in the room that previously belonged to his mother. He stands just as he did when he discovered his mother’s suicide, and, for a moment, we behold him as he first saw the bloody body. While the scene is more shocking and dramatic than others, the film’s signature mood—monochrome and distant—remains. Viewers are yanked back to the present when Lewis enters the room. Even then, the macabre aspect of the suicide scene is transformed into a cadaverous aesthetic: dust (a figure of death) is collecting on the dresser; the bedroom is a mausoleum.

There is a constant tug of war within the film over just how dramatic it wants to be. Tension rises in a way that feels familiar to viewers accustomed to conventional storytelling pyrotechnics, but the performance styles are wholly devoid of dramatic affect. Sophie’s expressive eyes and suspicious glances do much of the heavy lifting in this department. Moreover, they are something of a window into this movie’s central mystery—Milo. Having said this, she is not present for the truly gripping scenes of vampirism. And each of Milo’s killing attempts, whether botched or not, escalate the tension, upping the ante toward an impossible solution. It is easy to kill an unsympathetic drifter no one will miss, but when Milo is faced with killing a child, the full consequences of his being are made clear to him. These facts escalate the narrative tension, while the film, aesthetically speaking, remains affectless and borderline clinical.

There is a tendency in The Transfiguration for a kind of horror technique to take over. Much of what drives the movie forward, especially its grittier scenes, is a jumpy, spooky style we associate with the form. The musical score, too, obliges in inducing fear. Many a long note is played, each held to evoke a powerful sense of dread. The camera is rarely stationary; though it usually remains far from its characters. It often peeks around corners or through obstacles of various kinds—just the kind of psychologically-driven techniques one associates with the films of Roman Polanski. And yet, if Polanski’s New York in Rosemary’s Baby was a nightmare divorced from reality; The Transfiguration seems to want to exalt realism as much as its persnickety vampire-movie-critic protagonist does.

As the various plot lines reach a climax, Milo faces justice, thanks to his role in the murder of a suburban, white teen looking to score coke in the hood. (The movie’s critique of equity is blatant here: it takes the killing of this teen to get the cops on Milo’s trail.) Sophie, too, grows closer to discovering Milo’s darkest desires and tendencies, and eventually has to reckon with the parts of these she does learn (not the specifics, but some pretty clear red flags.) In this reckoning, she finds hope and a measure of healing. It is ironic since Milo does not seem to find the same hope for himself.

Still The Transfiguration, as the title indicates, is as much about Milo trying to do a moral act in an amoral world as it is about his attempts at transforming his whole identity.  Transfigurations necessitate a complete and total change. Developing a conscience may not be as shocking as turning into a vampire, but it’s something, and it is what Milo achieves. And a sense of morality is difficult, to say the least,  in Milo’s world. As the movie ends, it shifts in perspective. We watch Sophie embark  (with Milo’s blessing) of a trip outside the country. Sophie’s escape from New York at end of the film is a familiar device in movies about urban decay, but it is an example of something in extremely short supply throughout the rest of the film: optimism.

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