Lou is a suspense film calibrated for the mid-budget streaming era. The cast is fairly small. The setting—an island off the US Pacific Coast—is restricted. Even the run time at an hour 47 minutes, is modest.
Director Anna Foerster has worked with Roland Emmerich for years, and has a number of television credits to her name. But this is her feature debut—and obviously producers were only willing to risk so much.
Foerster works with it though. She’s crafted a strong, distinctive thriller about domestic violence and aging—two topics that emphasize claustrophobia and limitation. That turns the movie’s small ambitions into deliberate thematic choices. Add in strong performances from the leads, and this is an eminently watchable, if not urgent, film.
The Storm Is Closing In
The center of the movie is the title character, Lou, an aging woman disturbingly comfortable with violence. She’s played with craggy, eloquent abrasiveness by Allison Janney.
The year is 1985 or so, and Lou lives alone with her dog. She rents a house to Hannah (Jurnee Smollett) and Hannah’s daughter Vee (Ridley Asha Bateman.) Hannah likes Lou about as much as most people like their landlords. Vee, in the way of children, is more forgiving.
The three are settling in for a major storm, and Lou is settling in for a bigger life change even than that. But their plans are disrupted by Hannah’s ex-husband, Philip (Logan Marshall-Green). He’s ex-special forces and a dangerous abuser. He kidnaps Vee, and with communications knocked out by the storm (and no cellphones, since it’s the 80s), it’s up to Lou and Hannah to get the child back.
The story beats from there are predictable enough. There’s rising tension and danger. There’s growing trust between Hannah and Lou. There’s one really major twist right before the third act. This is more or less what you’re looking for if you turned on the film in the first place. The point isn’t innovation; it’s how you handle the tropes you’ve been dealt.
In this case, Foerster handles them quite well. Janney gets the gruff exterior/warm heart balance just right, so you can see the kindness peeking through even as you suspect that the meanness is more than just skin deep. Ridley Asha Bateman as Vee is also excellent; she doesn’t have a ton of lines, but her serious eyes as she watches her father tell the story better than dialogue could.
Suspense That Hurts
The best part of the film is Foerster’s careful orchestration of escalating wounds. This is not a film with invulnerable action-film protagonists: Hannah and Lou both start out with major injuries. Lou is suffering from arthritis; Hannah is recovering from an abusive relationship.
As they stagger across the island in pursuit of Vee, you can see the corporeal toll escalate. There isn’t much gore in the usual sense, but the camera lingers on a giant blister on Hannah’s heel, or on Lou popping her wrist back into joint. By the time the film ends, they both are a mass of bruises and agony; they can barely walk. The climactic battle is a gorgeous, exhausting struggle in the surf, the waves crashing like oceanic weariness and age.
The march across the island works as a march across years, a metaphor for the not-slow-enough deterioration of Lou’s once extremely fit body. And it’s also a metaphor for how, even as time trudges on, there are some things you can’t escape—most notably trauma and family and the way they’re intertwined. The feeling of being weighed down by age and the past and even by the genre tropes is built up skillfully so that when victories come, they feel worthy and hard-won.
Just Enough of Lou
The movie, like the protagonists, does have weaknesses. Philip is a stock character, and Logan Marshall-Green does nothing in particular with him. As the plot thickens, his motives actually become more opaque and less believable. Similarly, Lou becomes in some ways a more and more clichéd character as her backstory gets filled in. This is far from the only movie that is more interesting before it discloses its mysteries. But still, it’s a little disappointing.
There’s also a suggestion at the close that there might be a sequel. I doubt the movie will do enough numbers to make that happen, but even the hint is a bad idea. As with other streaming films like Kimi or Windfall, a big part of Lou’s appeal is that it is not a sprawling grab for franchise glory.
Instead, it’s a small film with self-imposed boundaries that turns focus, claustrophobia, and limitations into virtues. Lou is never going to beat Iron Man or Batman or James Bond. That’s the movie’s charm. Sometimes, weakness can be a strength.
Lou releases globally on Netflix on September 23.
Rating: 7.4/10 SPECS
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.