It Follows (Review)

Trolling around the internet, I didn’t find many negative opinions about It Follows. It’s notable that the two I did both had the same complaint: it can’t stick to its own rules. That’s what I was fixated on too while watching it: the rules – what they were, and whether they worked.

Those reviews, by the way, are as qualified and not as they come. One of them is Quentin Tarantino himself. The other is some random dude from Oregon who wrote an angry letter in to the Telegraph. Angry Dude gives it a much more thorough going-over and concludes that the film’s inconsistencies render it worthless. Tarantino basically likes it but thinks the missteps keep what had the potential to be a great movie in the realm of merely good.

Well, if Quentin Tarantino and someone motivated enough to write an actual snailmail letter agree on something, you can’t dismiss it entirely. And yet I feel like they’ve only got part of the point. It’s true that there are some missteps, but not everything that doesn’t make logical plot sense is a mistake – especially in horror movies. The movie is definitely inconsistent by the spoken rules it lays out for itself, but it’s an interesting question how seriously we’re supposed to take those.

Before you read too far, I’ll go ahead and post the obligatory spoiler alert. Honestly, though, this isn’t one of those movies where it matters much since the plot isn’t so much the point. It’s the atmosphere that matters, and the atmosphere is so skillfully conveyed that it comes through even if you know what’s coming next.

The plot is very simple. We meet our protagonist – a blonde girl named Jay (short for Jaime) – shortly before she’s slept with her latest boyfriend, a guy named Hugh that she doesn’t seem to know very well. Their first date – to a movie in what would appear to be an artsy theatre – ends abruptly when Hugh points out a woman to her that she can’t see. He feels the need to leave the theater immediately. But they go out the next night and sleep together in the back of his car. As soon as they’re done, he drugs her, and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair. He explains that he’s transmitted a curse to her. She will be followed by a mysterious stranger that only she can see and who is trying to kill her. The stranger can take on any form, and it is relentless, but it will never run – it always walks. The only way to avoid it is to sleep with someone else and pass on the curse. Later, we find out (again from "Hugh") that this isn’t entirely accurate: you’re never actually free of the curse, but it seems to need to kill in order of most recent infection. That is, it has to kill whoever Jay sleeps with next before it can come for her. To emphasize that the curse is real, he waits until he can see it and wheels her over to see a disfigured woman walking toward them from the woods. Then they hightail it out of there and he dumps her (literally) in the street in front of her house.

She tells the police and her friends the story, emphasizing to the police that the sex was consensual. Naturally, no one believes her about the curse, but her friends can see that she’s shaken up. The movie then wastes no time in getting into the thick of things. Her neighbor Paul (who has a not-very-secret crush on her) agrees to stay the night and watch her. Someone smashes the kitchen window, which (implausibly) doesn’t concern Paul much. But then It is in the house in various forms, and Jay flees to a nearby park.

Already from the opening encounter, you as a viewer can’t help but notice the fixation on The Rules. Even as "Hugh" is explaining them to Jay, you find yourself wondering how he knows. The only way that immediately suggests itself is that the person who slept with him told him, but that just begs the question of how she knew. Turtles all the way down?

On an entirely different level, we also can’t help but notice that the movie has already brazenly violated several horror conventions – Rules of the genre. First, Jay is blonde, and she’s the popular girl in the group of friends. The Final Girl is never blonde, she’s never the conventional beauty, and she’s never the popular one. And yet, they remembered to give her a gender-ambiguous name, as Final Girls tend to have. In fact, they laid it on especially thick here, just to make sure we got the point: Jay is a nickname for Jaime, which is itself gender-ambiguous. Second, while it IS having sex that brings Jay to the attention of the killer, it’s notable that having sex again, and with someone else to boot, is the only way to free herself. It’s as though the movie wants to draw attention to the fact that it’s breaking rules by remembering to half-follow them. Third, this isn’t Scream, so having a character read off the rules this explicitly is unsettling in the first place. This movie doesn’t contain so much as an ounce of parody (a refreshing trait shared by the nearly as good House of the Devil) – so it shouldn’t really be making its groundrules this explicit. Finlly and most importantly, though, we’re not supposed to see the killer this early, especially if the killer is supernatural. The convention in movies like this is to have the killer just out of sight for most of it while the Final Girl comes to the slow realization that something truly terrible is going on. This convention is precisely inverted here: she’s told there’s a killer, she’s told only she can see it, she’s shown that it’s real, almost immediately after telling everyone her story all grounds for doubt are removed, and even the group of initial doubters around her starts off sympathetic and quickly comes to realize it’s all true. Oh, and by the way, she’s not actually a Final Girl since the killer is only stalking her. It doesn’t remove all the other pieces from the board first, so to speak: the only other person who dies in the movie had deliberately put himself in the crosshairs by sleeping with her. This is a movie that acknowledges all the conventions it breaks.

All of which suggests we’re supposed to take the rules half-seriously too. Which is to say, there evidently are some – it’s true enough that we never see the demon do anything but walk, for example – but it’s not clear that they’re absolute, and it’s certainly not clear that "Hugh" actually knows what they are with any great certainty. Indeed, the movie seems to encourage this kind of speculation in a number of ways. We’re given pretty strong hints that the Follower can’t approach from behind only to then follow with a scene in which it approaches from behind – but only this once. We make the natural assumption that if the Follower can only be seen by Jay (as seems to be true) that it must also in some sense only exist for her. And yet it doesn’t – it’s not incorporeal, it’s simply invisible to everyone but Jay. If someone throwws a blanket over it, everyone can see it’s form in the shape of the blanket. So its existence can be verified, then. It’s true that we never see the Follower run, but it doesn’t always follow either. Sometimes it merely menaces – like in that scene in the theater, or in another when it’s standing on top of Jay’s house watching her leave. Also, it’s never entirely clear what its starting point is. It seems to have to walk toward its target, but it’s evidently always somewhere nearby, even if you pile in a car and drive all the way out to the lake. "Hugh" tells Jay she can outrun it, but he’s clearly wrong about that: it appears behind her on the beach not long after they’ve driven there for the express purpose of buying some time by creating some distance from it.

There are probably other examples, but you get the point: the rules, such as they are, are imperfectly understood just as they are imperfectly binding. There’s a (deliberate, one assumes) parallel to the "border" of 8 Mile. One of the characters notes that her mother forbade her crossing 8 Mile as a kid, because that’s where the city starts. Does crime really stop where the city starts? No, of course not, and even if it did there’s no physical reason why criminals can’t cross the border. And yet, we know from reserach on the subject that that border is not imaginary – the crime rate really is dramatically higher on one side of 8 Mile than the other. It’s not a wall, but it resembles one in many ways.

I think the flagrant violations of "the Rules" are in the service of a point. Pace Tarantino, far from ruining the tension, they’re actually the source of it. If "Hugh" were – however implausibly – right about all the Rules, the Follower becomes just a kind of machine. It’s scary precisely because it’s not a machine. Like "Thou shallt not cross 8 Mile," these rules are real enough to be useful, but they’re not guarantees. The Follower is scary because it just might be able to run, for all we actually know, and we grasp at the straw that it can’t merely because no one’s seen it do that yet.

In this sense, it keeps with David Robert Mitchell’s favorite theme: the uncertainty of adulthood. "Hugh" admires a child in that scene in the theater because the child has its life ahead of it with no worries. Adulthood is not like that. Adulthood is more like the events of the movie. You never recover that feeling of absolute security you had as a child – there’s always a vague sense of unease, of inevitable doom. Because of course doom IS inevitable: if you don’t die in an accident or from a freak disease, you will get old and gradually lose your senses and ability to remember and reason. Death comes in the end – for everyone. The only thing you can kind of do to stave it off is to find a partner and support each other – but even that doesn’t work. As indeed, the beautifully not-really-ambiguous-at-all final scene shows us. Jay has formed a relationship with Paul – never her first choice, but definitely the most practical one given the circumstances – and we can tell by the fact that they’re holding hands (ah, but imperfectly holding hands – if you wondered what thematic purpose that cast and Jaime’s broken arm served, now you know. Now that I mention it, is that cast even on the same arm here as it was before?) as they walk down the sidewalk. A woman in white clothes seems to be following them. Presumably, this is the Follower, which is now once again after Jay, having killed its way back down to her. But it could just be someone walking down the sidewalk for all we know. Joining forces with Paul’s helped, but not for long and certainly not forever.

About that – one thing that I think Tarantino is clearly wrong about is the supposed inconsistency of Jay being willing to sleep with Greg to deflect the Follower’s attention but not with Paul. Paul is, after all, available, in to her, attractive and willing. Nevertheless, it seems right to me that she doesn’t want to sleep with him – for several reasons. The first one being the one she gives: that Greg was never afraid of the Follower. Greg simply doesn’t believe in it – meaning that at least from his point of view, he’s not actually taking a risk. Jay believes in it, so that makes it a bit callous of her to transmit it I suppose – but you know, there’s a general sense with the supernatural that its existence in part depends on belief. She’s probably hoping that Greg’s lack of belief will dispell it. Since Paul not only believes in it but also fears it, he’s a dead end. Second being that Paul is clearly in to her and Greg isn’t. There are emotional consequences to sleeping with Paul that don’t present with Greg. But most importantly, Greg’s just the kind of guy you sleep with. Paul isn’t. Tarantino doesn’t get this because, as has been noted, romance is his weak point. It isn’t that the romance scenes in his movies don’t work, exactly, but they’re not always very convincing. Certainly they’re the least interesting part of his movies. In Tarantino’s head, Paul’s looks and sincerity should be a turnon. In reality, the geek is generally less of a turnon than the jock, full stop. The girl might fall for the geek after she gets to know him, but she never, ever uses him for sex.

The bottom line about It Follows is that we’ve entered an era in the history of popular literature where we’ve come to realize that plot and consistency aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. The standard line is that plot matters because if it stumbles at all, the reader/viewer loses his ability to suspend disbelief. Plot holes are distracting. That’s true up to a point. It turns out that it’s only certain kinds of violations that ruin our ability to suspend disbelief, and that which kind is which is devlishly hard to define. Indeed, authors are discovering that worrying too much about plot is a bit of a self-defeating game, both because any artificial structure will invariably have flaws that nitpickers can exploit and also because real life is frequently surprising and inexplicable. If life itself doesn’t cohere as well as the plotmeisters demand, anything too well plotted ends up looking fake.

Reaching adulthood is nothing if not learning that rules are rarely absolute. When you were a child, you had things like fixed bedtime, and it was always wrong to lie. As an adult, you go to bed more or less at the same time every night – except when you don’t – and there are always good moral reasons to do things that are technically bad, like lying.

So yes, in sum, this is a movie about Rules. The joke on Tarantino and Angry Dude is that there are actually no such things as rules.

Of course, I had questions of my own. In particular, there’s a scene where Jay wades out into the water removing her clothes because she’s seen a boat with some guys on it. Presumably she’s going to sleep with them to get rid of the curse – but all of them? More to the point, she’ll need to convince them to sleep with someone else fairly soon, to maximize her distance in the chain. How is she going to do that after a casual encounter like this? Wouldn’t going to a frat party and sleeping with the sluttiest guy there be the safer bet? How did she make this decision, and why? Doesn’t it just transfer to the next guy she sleeps with? It doesn’t transfer to all of them, right? And when, as seems virtually inevitable, the Follower kills her choice, isn’t Paul in danger all over again as the (likely) next guy she sleeps with?

So no, Mitchell hasn’t completely convinced me. There are still some rough edges, and that’s unfortunate. But this is a very good movie all the same. It’s wonderfully shot, it’s atmospheric in the best possible ways, the characters are among the most accurate slices of teenaged American life I’ve seen on film, and it’s wise enough to stay silent about the actual mechanics of what’s going on, even as it tries to convince you it’s laid out all the rules. It may not be a masterpiece completely, but it’s very close to one, and it’s still among the best horror movies since John Carpenter’s Halloween (which it references shamelessly).

Overall Rating A

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