There’s an unheralded classic horror movie somewhere in Talk to Me, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to. It occasionally brushes against greatness through its performances and its nonstop dread, but it too often falls back on the “cursed object we shouldn’t play with” formula, complete with all the predictable pitfalls and nuances thereof. However, what we do get is a walloping spookfest and mental thrashing during the few days its lead characters have to suffer the horrifying repercussions of literally extending a hand to “the other side.”
As is wont to happen in films like this, we start with someone damaged, someone who carries a ready-made reason to question the beyond. From there, through their own personal grief, they are attacked by whatever they encounter and sometimes made to watch as those around them suffer severe consequences. If it sounds like Ari Aster’s startling feature Hereditary, you’re right. (And they’re even released by the same studio, A24.) There’s even a scene where someone smashes their face and comes away a bloody mess, along with a tragic unintended death.
Differentiating this film from Hereditary is the refocus on the teenage Mia (Sophia Wilde), two years removed from her mother’s suicide. Since then, she’s been deflective with her father, not acknowledging the deepening well of mutual (but not shared) mourning and despair. Instead, she’s turned to her other family, that consisting of her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen), her brother Riley (Joe Bird), and their mother Sue (Miranda Otto).
This family is the only solace she has, a reminder of what it’s like to have a complete family – or, rather, the family she wishes to have. While Jade’s father is out of the picture, she can’t bring herself to rely on her own, thus making Jade’s family the perfect refuge from her own troubles. There’s a deep-seated mistrust there which only gets exacerbated by the introduction of the film’s MacGuffin, an embalmed hand encased in porcelain that users grip to form a connection with the dead.
Being used as a party trick to make viral videos of ghoul-eyed people under its influence, this hand carries with it a certain set of rules. First: Light the candle. Second: Grab hold of the hand and speak the words “Talk to me,” followed by “I let you in,” allowing the spirit to possess the speaker. Third and most important: Sessions must last no more than 90 seconds, and the connection must be severed by blowing out the candle. As films like these go… you know these rules are going to get broken, leading to disastrous consequences. Especially when there are headstrong, supposedly-invincible teenagers involved.
Mia’s willingness to take these journeys finds her easily flirting with death, recklessly abandoning this life to look at specters from without. Her fascination with this hand is rooted in both the loss of her mother and her drug-like addiction to something that makes her feel anything than the guilt and grief she’s avoiding. Problems grow from cracks to chasms if left untouched, and Mia is looking at a gaping canyon separating her from what she needs to confront. Through the dismissal of her feelings, she’s burying herself further in an area she needn’t meddle with, but she’s too far gone to realize it.
Well, at least until one of these sessions goes completely, bloodily, and gorily awry, as it must. From there, the fight is on to retrieve what’s been lost – in this case, Riley’s very soul. Not the most original of plots, but director brothers Danny (also credited co-writer) and Michael Philippou and co-writer Bill Hinzman certainly make Talk to Me beguilingly intriguing and gut-clenchingly desperate as Mia tries to undo the damage to herself and both the families she has left. Sophia Wilde drives this film with relentless passion, turning from being a teenager sinking herself into avoidance to having to confront her circumstances – and her guilt and grief – head-on. It’s not easy, considering how far down the rabbit hole she’s gone, most definitely after the possibility exists of her being able to talk to the one person she wishes to reconnect with the most. Wilde hangs these events around her neck, the weight of them pulling her toward a destination she wouldn’t have thought possible at the film’s outset.
Pulling Talk to Me back somewhat from all-time classic status is the reliance on the familiar instead of going a step further into more unknown territory. While the film’s prologue shows the promise of something ghastly and exciting, our expectations are tempered by plot movements cribbed from other similar “haunted object” films, specifically Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, in which its characters confront a cursed mirror that tricks them through unreliable visions. There are more than enough nods to cinematic lore through actions big and small – onerous bait-and-switch moments at the height of the film’s climax, the slyly suggestive nature of the spirits Mia encounters, among others – that might take us out of the film, but the brothers Philippou seamlessly wind them together as more of its own thing, not outright homage or an obvious lift.
The Philippous thrust us into Mia’s life without clumsy exposition, choosing to allow us to experience rather than hear about what she’s going through. An admirable characteristic of this deft directorial touch is that we’re bonded to her inexorably, not just as a witness but as a participant in these deadly events, enveloping her and us in the possible evil corrupting her with each step she takes. There’s an ambiguity that the Philippous espouse, much to the film’s credit, and it forces Mia to walk a line without knowing what lies on either side.
It’s not the concrete adversarial war against demons in The Exorcist, even though its inspiration can be found in the battle that the Philippous have set in front of Mia. We truly don’t know what’s being told to us from the other side or how we’re to take these occurrences in Mia’s eyes. Lies are cloaked in truth while she tries to figure out her next move, and we don’t know if she’s being led down a path or forging it for herself. It’s this terrifyingly magnetic here-or-there which keeps us rooted to Talk to Me firmly and without mercy, its ultimate revelation throwing its final card down and chillingly, unnervingly threading its final passage through us.