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DIRECTED BY: Cairo Smith
FEATURING: AnnaClare Hicks, Charlie Farrell, Milly Sanders
PLOT: Recovering from a breakup, Emily goes to California to stay with a high school friend and his wife, but discovers that they are anxious to keep her around—by any means possible.
COMMENTS: The orange-colored drinks Melissa insists Emily drain aren’t screwdrivers—they’re spiked with something seriously stronger than Ketel One. Emily, who comes from a conservative Christian background, doesn’t drink much; three glasses of wine at dinner are a guilty indulgence for her. But whatever Melissa and Robert are slipping into her food and drink is sapping her already fragile willpower.
It’s not a spoiler to suggest that her hosts are up to no good; it’s inherent in the subgenre, and right there in the synopsis. The suspense occurs in how and why that “no good” is realized. Screwdriver has no money to realize it’s aims; the closest you will get to a special effect is some disorienting editing suggesting time passing in a blur. Its tools are limited to its three main characters talking in one house. Screwdriver gets the acting quality necessary to pass over the watchability threshold. As Emily, Hicks is always likable, if sometimes too meek and submissively childlike, even given her vulnerable state. Farrell’s Robert hits the proper note of nerdy menace, with smiles that linger on the border of genuine and smarmy. (Sanders, as a chilly corporate Lady Macbeth, gives a more stereotypical performance, but it doesn’t distract from the overall drama.) The script toys with their three-way dynamic artfully, never stating anything too obviously, leaving the audience to guess at the darker implications under the surface of the small talk. Dialogue exchanges are realistic—you can see Emily sensing unsaid subtext, although she lacks the courage to challenge her hosts directly. The movie’s biggest gamble is Robert’s use of guided visualization in his pro-bono therapy sessions with his guest: the journeys he leads Emily on are surreal and filled with pseudo-religious imagery (like talking cigarette oracles), a technique that generates a sense of mystical grandeur (and menace) far outside what the budget will allow.
The main trick Screwdriver has up its sleeve is its subtle impenetrability. It’s clear what happens in the movie, and even how it happens; what’s harder to grasp is why it happens, and what it ultimately means. Even if you suss out Robert and Melissa’s ultimate motive, plenty of uncertainties remain about what exactly will happen after the end credits roll. A number of things are left unsaid; the characters always know more than they let on to the audience. We hear one-sided telephone conversations about events whose significance to the plot is obscure. Robert hints at possible mistakes in Emily’s past. We don’t know why she and her husband broke up. There’s a lot of talk about God—Robert treats Emily’s belief in God with contempt, as a weakness he can exploit. He’s also extremely concerned about his tenure review, which should be just a formality—is there a lurking scandal? Melissa is coy about what her startup—excuse me, her “startrupt”— actually does. And although a literal screwdriver appears in the film, along with a mystical imaginary one, its significance is unclear, so even the title is a mystery. The movie’s obliqueness and unelaborated subplots may strike some as dry and amateurish; others will find it clever enough to make for an intriguing and promising feature debut.
Writer/director Cairo Smith is only 26. As pointed out above, Screwdriver was obviously made for almost no money; Smith was forced to rely on the script do the heavy lifting. Somebody should give this guy a fat stack and see what he can get done.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“What is going on here? This is a question which Screwdriver (2023) poses early, but cannot answer in a meaningful way throughout its ninety-minute (or so) runtime. Lost in a maze of hard-to-follow, harder-to-engage dialogue, with a limited cast, set and – most detrimentally to the film overall – characterisation, it feels far longer than it is.”–Keri O’Shea, Warped Perspective (contemporaneous)