As I watched William Brent Bell‘s Separation, I couldn’t help but feel like I’ve seen this movie before. Creepy puppets and toys, a maternal evil, parenthood panic — the déjà vu was overwhelming. In the case of Bell’s The Boy, he lifts ingredients from other movies while still putting together a passable main course; the sequel need not be mentioned out of respect for those who had to endure it. The appropriation process for Separation is similar, but the execution is lifeless.
Jake (Rupert Friend) and Maggie Vanh’s (Mamie Gummer) marriage has been in trouble for awhile, and an incident involving their young daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw) pushes things over the edge. Maggie files for divorce and sole custody, which she is almost certain to win seeing as her husband is an unemployed graphic artist who’s been freeloading for far too long. That is, until Jenny’s mother is mysteriously killed in a hit-and-run accident. The custody battle isn’t over, though, because Jake’s father-in-law Paul (Brian Cox) is picking up where his late daughter left off; he will stop at nothing until Jenny moves in with him, permanently.
Jake gains steady employment — inking others’ art at a college friend’s comic business — in hopes of bettering his chances of keeping his daughter. In the meantime, Jenny has found a suspicious coping mechanism; an imaginary friend who is really a malevolent spirit looking to do what Maggie couldn’t: take Jenny away from Jake forever.
Horrors found at home is a big draw especially nowadays, but very little about Separation is inviting. At a basic level, the movie is so stifled by its own characterless drama and writing. The pace is not particularly tedious only because everything is predictable. This turns into an active game of accurately guessing what’s going to happen before groaning in disappointment. Children Jenny’s age may enjoy paint-by-number activities, but I do not.
As a horror movie, Separation is edgeless and devoid of even cheap scares. I wish I could say Maggie’s death early on gave me a much-needed jolt, but no, her fate was obvious thanks to the scene’s tone and blocking. The movie even shamelessly tries to use another traffic trick to no avail. Brent doesn’t even humor the idea of ambiguity when asking audiences if there is something lurking in Jenny’s room or anywhere else for that matter — all the cards are laid out with no good hands in sight. Although the supernatural threats are equally as ineffective to anyone who’s seen their fair share of funhouse nightmare fuel, their costume and design work is impressive from a technical standpoint.
In a bid to make Separation more agonizing, the movie is shockingly misogynistic. The main women are either made out to be unkind monsters or (SPOILERS) stalkers fueled by their own erotomania. It’s insulting how Gummer’s Maggie is literally demonized so Friend’s Jake can learn to be a better father; his education comes at the expense of his ex-wife’s misery and daughter’s trauma. Even in death, Maggie is still cleaning up after him. (END SPOILERS)
Custody hearings can get ugly, and I’d argue the movie handles that plot with more enthusiasm than any of the actual horror elements. Communicating the horrors of divorce isn’t a worthless endeavor and the topic should be explored in a better project, but Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun make zero effort with their story or characters. It’s just a chore to watch in spite of some decent performances and better-than-average costume designs. Separation is fundamentally a colorless genre reimagining of Kramer vs. Kramer that uses every trick in the book — not a a single one of them works, though.