A shadow races into a thicket, swearing as it pedals frenetically. The winter daylight is fading into night and bare tree arms layer one another, creating web-like shapes. As the boy sweats, he speeds into the dark of the forest. Proverbially and literally, he is not out of the woods – he is headed into the thick of them.
This is the opening to writer/director Luis Gerard’s film, The Wake, a short about two sons of a funeral home owner who make money on the side by thieving from the homes of the recently deceased. Walter (Isaac Kragten), the older of the two, orchestrates the plans and steals the addresses from his father’s files and enlists his younger brother, Martin (Zander Colbeck-Bhola), to assist him. The two plunder the homes, unaware of the consequences, until one particular day, when a loved one of the dead returns home during their mission.
There is something mythological about The Wake. Walter loathes his father’s business; his face is filled with contempt with each frame they share. Despite this, the two bear remarkable similarities. In addition to inheriting his father’s barely tempered anger at his position in life, Walter smokes (a habit Martin also tries to pick up to no success), and, most importantly, also profits from death, albeit in a manner far less legal than that of his father. While Walter may reject any idea of participating in his father’s business, he seems to be on a path towards becoming everything he detests about his father. The bleak Canadian landscape is nearly all barren trees and flat lines; there is nowhere to go. When the twist at the end of the film occurs, it is shocking in the moment and devastating upon contemplation.
The short is terrifically strong, and wastes none of its twenty-four minute runtime. Every shot is rife with death: whether it be in corpses, picture frames of the dearly departed or the trinkets and bobs the dead leave behind, there is something guillotine-like looming in each moment of the film. Gerard demonstrates a masterful directorial grasp on suspense, letting the audience peek around corners, lurk in hallways and crawl through windows with the two protagonists. The film’s grip on visual language is heightened and enhanced by the fact that it is nearly empty of verbal dialogue; Martin is deaf, as is Colbeck-Bhola, and Gerard, having spent time with the young actor’s family, uses switching lights, stomping and a particularly ingenious use of sound design to occasionally throw the audience into Martin’s world, relying on his sight and the occasional vibration of a floorboard to guide him.
The two young performers also carry the weight of the story with grace and believability. Kragten delivers a performance that is salty, but never void of feeling. Walter may be a punky adolescent, but he loves his brother, and in the scenes he shares with Colbeck-Bhola, the two have a very palpable familial chemistry. The two communicate almost entirely through sign language, which makes their visual performances all the more impressive, and Martin’s clear admiration of his older brother rings through every scene. Even when he expresses his lack of desire to enter the homes of the dead, Martin will always end up following his brother’s lead – a particularly tragic bit of character information to learn when the audience sees where Walter’s choices lead him.
Winner of numerous festival awards, The Wake is splendid in its simplicity. While Walter and Martin may act with the idea that they have a semblance of choice in their lives, but by the end of the film, it feels as if the events that transpire were bound to happen. The Wake is a bleak look at the inevitability of fate, and how everyone, one way or another, is bound to their familial past.