At a certain point in “Braid,” a psychological thriller about three young women who’ve been friends since girlhood doing unspeakable things to each other in a spooky old mansion, there comes a scene that, in context of everything that led to that point, makes zero sense. Then comes another scene nonsensical scene, and another, and another, each seemingly disconnected from the scene that preceded it. Plot, logic, continuity, become even more meaningless than they were already, which is saying something. It’s as if the movie itself has lost its mind.
And it was at that point, dear reader, that the reviewer fell in love with the movie.
None of this is meant to suggest that “Braid” completely implodes, or somehow “loses it,” or that it abuses the audience’s trust, or takes its attention for granted. The movie is up front about the fact that it’s the kind of story where anything can happen, and that the writer-director of “Braid,” first time feature filmmaker Mitzi Peirone, isn’t going to worry whether you approve of how she presents things, only that the presentation has an impact.
“Braid” opens with flash-forward of the women burying a body in the forest, then follows two of them, drug-dealing best friends Petula Thames (Imogene Waterhouse) and Tilda Darlings (Sarah Hay), as they flee a police raid and the drug dealer to whom they owe $85,000 (the cost of the drugs he fronted them, and that now belong to the cops). The bulk of the movie takes place in a mansion in the woods, owned by the third friend, Daphne Peters (Madeline Brewer), a reclusive psychotic who inherited the place from her late grandparents. Petula and Tilda have gone there to steal Daphne’s inheritance cash from a safe in the house so they can pay back the drug dealer. Daphne expects her guests to play the same game they played as children, where she’s the domineering “Mother,” Tilda is the “Child,” and Petula is the visiting “Doctor,” and there are ironclad rules that have to be followed, including “No One Leaves” and “No Outsiders Allowed.”
A good part of the movie follows Daphne, Petula and Tilda as they play their familiar childhood game, or appear to. Sometimes the two visitors sneak around the mansion, trying to figure out the location of Daphne’s safe and deduce its combination from contextual clues. Occasionally a local police detective named Siegel (Scott Cohen) snoops around, asking if Daphne has scene her two old friends, whose mugs now adorn a “Missing” poster that’s been stapled up all over town. Brewer, best known from “Orange is the New Black” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and Cohen, of “Billions” and “The Americans,” share a darkly amusing scene reminiscent of a moment in a Hitchcock thriller where an investigator knows someone is guilty of a horrible crime and lets them know it. The detective offers Daphne his condolences on her grandparents’ deaths: “It’s terrible how they passed together. And so suddenly.” Throughout, Daphne acts like somebody who hasn’t left her house in years and is hiding something. She snips at a vase full of flowers, cuts loose with high-pitched giggles at things that aren’t funny, and at one point covers her ears in response to the detective saying things that she’d rather not hear.
None of the characters are charming, or even likable. But this is no accident or byproduct of inattention. It’s part of the film’s design, whether or not you approve of it. “Braid” affects a sort of punk-rock nonchalance about how irredeemable its heroes are (the detective seems like a bit of pill as well) and seems to dare us, and itself, to find their incessant psychological and sometimes physical torturing of each other horrifying (or moving) regardless. By the end, I wasn’t moved by it. But I was impressed by how all the disparate parts that didn’t seem to work together actually did. Once you realize that the film had a particular destination in mind all along but chose not to go there in a conventional way, you may appreciate its seemingly heedless confidence—the way it seems to be skipping, somersaulting and sprinting through the tale, showing off at every turn with its alternately sumptuous and grotesquely distorted widescreen visuals (by cinematographer Todd Banhazi), its dagger-slash editing (by David Gutnik), and its superheated music (by Michael Gatt), which blends elements of classic Hollywood melodramas and neon-lit 1980s thrillers.
If you watch the whole thing a second time, it’ll feel more coherent, and the experience will explain a lot about the characterizations, the tone of the performances, and the script’s disinterest in consistency and realism. The experience won’t retroactively add depth to the characters, mind you—they’re all essentially insects whose wings that the film can pull off, then restore, then pull off again—but you’ll see the vision more clearly. “Braid” doesn’t fret over adhering to real-world logic, preferring instead to follow the emotional logic of dreams, to the point where you may sometimes feel as if you’re dreaming the film, or remembering having dreamed it, or seeing someone else’s dream, as if via tap inserted into their sleeping brain. Some of the greatest directors work in that mode.
Peirone isn’t there yet—the characters are psychologically thin, defined more by what they say about each other than what we observe of their behavior, and both the performances and the direction aren’t modulated enough; the emotional volume starts at a 9 and rarely dips lower.
But at its best, she, her actors, and her filmmaking collaborators cook up something that feels like a potluck stew of “Heavenly Creatures,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, “Spring Breakers,” the original “Oldboy,” and the scene at the end of “Rebel Without a Cause” where three lonely teenagers play house in a vacant suburban home. What sort of mind would concoct something this peculiar and undeniably personal, and fill it with moments of gaslighting, torment, torture, disfigurement, murder, slapstick, and scenes of adults playing dress-up like little kids? I came away feeling that I’d seen, if not a major film, then a film by major talents.