Melodrama and horror collide in The Atoning, the second feature from writer/director Michael Williams. The film follows a family of three- Vera, Ray, and young Sam- who appear to be haunted by the spirits in their home, as they deal with the consequences of a life-altering mistake that Ray has made.
Aesthetically, The Atoning is comparable to classic ghost films à la The Changeling. Williams directs his film with an emphasis on the deliberately slow pace, allowing his story to unfold in a way that feels true to the lives of the characters, all the while utilizing the old house to effectively establish a somber tone through his poetic shot-framing and old-school scares. This is a decidedly sad film, and Williams admirably sticks with the core drama rather than going off the rails with cliche supernatural tropes.
The character of Vera is essentially a conduit for the sadness of The Atoning, and Virginia Newcomb is flat-out heartbreaking in the role. Her weary eyes and broken spirit are on full display, and Newcomb layers these traits with a sweetness and protective motherly instinct. We don’t truly learn what Ray has done to tear apart the family until the film’s finale (though there are enough hints given to make it obvious for attentive viewers), but Newcomb’s nuanced emotional performance effortlessly turns you against the father and husband.
While the other performances aren’t on par with the unattainable pedestal in which Newcomb’s showcase has been placed, they’re certainly effective enough to keep the viewer invested. Cannon Bosarge brings a charming innocence to the role of Sam, who is oblivious to the truth of what his father has done. He doesn’t understand the way things are, and he tries his best to hold the family together. Ray, however, spends much of the film not putting forth the effort. He’s cold to both Vera and Sam, blatantly disconnecting himself from any emotional attachment to his son. Michael LaCour does a fine job with the role as we learn that this intentional distance comes from a place of guilt, and his strongest moments in The Atoning come when he finally starts trying to repair the damage he’s done.
Where the film falters, though, is in its execution of building appropriate suspense before the big reveal in the center of its run-time. Characters act in a bizarre manner, and though we eventually receive answers as to why, Williams’ slow pace leads to a significant amount of frustration as the story plods without proper character and story motivation. In addition to that frustration, the moments of horror in the first half of the film fall unfortunately flat. The subtle creeps such as cabinets swinging open, pictures reappearing on the wall after being removed, and puzzles completing themselves, are undone by the midway twist- but the lack of horrific concern from the characters keeps these moments from ever being “scary” in the first place. Thankfully, the final act of The Atoning makes up for its horror shortcomings with a finale that’s particularly frightening and intense as the demons of the families past physically manifest and torment them.
All in all, The Atoning is an admirable independent effort whose ghosts are personal ones. The film knows that mistakes of the past are what really keep us up at night, and director Michael Williams effectively highlights that notion. Though it’s dressed as a horror film, it operates as a family drama, and thanks to the direction of Williams and the particularly stellar performance by Virginia Newcomb, it works.
The Atoning is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download on September 5, 2017.