It’s a strange sensation watching a film that consistently aims to disarm and misdirect the viewer, yet feels steeped in familiarity. Such is Finnish writer/ director Taneli Mustonen (Lake Bodom)’s English-language debut. The Twin is intricately assembled and patiently presented as a composite of numerous tropes and references, a higgledy-piggledy structure but one built on shifting sands. The whiplash narrative twists entertain, yet never dazzle. Even if Mustonen’s disguises his intentions behind some impressive smoke and mirrors, once they’re revealed the result is always recognition.
Following the death of their son Nathan, Rachel (Teresa Palmer) and Anthony (Steven Cree) leave the US to begin again in Anthony’s childhood home in remote Finland. Also relocating is Elliot (Tristan Ruggeri), the dead boy’s twin. Rachel is understandably protective of her surviving son even when that lurches into paranoia. While Anthony is certain that her fears are natural phases of trauma and grief to be worked through, Rachel is unconvinced. There’s something about the cloying, bleak strangeness of the town and the eerily watchful faces of its residents. Elliot too is beginning to act in ways difficult to attribute to bereavement, not least claiming that he is Nathan.
The first of Mustonen’s many curveballs is the realisation early on that we’re not in for a haunted house tale, despite every single element – the classic Shining overhead car shot, the foreboding new house, the furniture made spectral by dust sheets – screaming that to be the case. Instead, The Twin settles into the recent folk horror resurgence, particularly Midsommar, with its gloomier spin on ritual weirdness in a pagan setting. Even then, the footing is less than sure, with hints of Rosemary’s Baby and a hefty pinch of The Omen muscling its way in. Squint hard enough and you may even glimpse an unintentional dash of Hot Fuzz.
Crucially, even if Mustonen and co-writer Aleksi Hyvärinen‘s insistence on a jazz arrangement of solidly pop elements doesn’t quite swing it, there is the keystone motif of Teresa Palmer’s performance. With her startling large eyes sunken into her skull and the air of someone whose very skeleton is trying to claw through her skin, her Rachel summons a compassion and empathy that accompanies even the wilder vicissitudes of the story. And they do get increasingly wild, in ways sure to be divisive. Such is the focus on Rachel that Cree’s Anthony is relegated to the background to the point of suspicion, yet provides solid work when called on, albeit in a way that functions as expositive rather than climactic.
The Twin also looks and sounds rather great. Daniel Lindholm‘s cinematography finds disturbing juxtapositions in the almost monochromatic beauty of Tallinn, Estonia (standing in as a tax-friendly double for its neighbour), and the blinding sun and shimmering wheat fields of Rachel’s Southern Gothic-fried nightmares. Panu Aaltio‘s score is similarly gorgeous, especially when finding the sinister elements in twinkling fairy tale melodies; a suitable musical reminder to peer beyond the film’s cluttered surfaces.
Despite some languid pacing and its slightly Frankensteined construction, The Twin is actually compulsively watchable throughout. The talent both in front of and behind the camera overcome most of the issues regarding originality. With that it mind, it is still destined to divide opinion, with its legion horror elements in service of yet another tale of the supernatural providing an allegory for a mother’s grief. While The Twin may not be the most potent example of this increasingly staple narrative, it still carries some genuine emotional weight.
Screening on Shudder from Fri 6 May 2022