AFI Fest 2020: The Intruder, by Scott Nye
The “House of Psychotic Women” movie, a genre Kier-La Janisse defined in her seminal autobiographical study of female-fronted psychological thrillers, has of late de-emphasized the direct way in which men traumatize women, recognizing that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Films like Mulholland Dr., Black Swan, Madeline’s Madeline, Woodshock, Breathe, Melancholia, and The Witch focus more on how women compete with each other (sometimes in a chaotic familial environment), their expectations for themselves and their lives, and an unpredictable global future.
Natalia Meta’s new thriller The Intruder fits into this more contemporary context, centering on a middle-age woman (Erica Rivas) who makes her living doing a variety of vocal work. We’re introduced to her providing the Spanish-language dub track for a series of gruesome Japanese horror films; later, we’ll find her a member of a choir. Between those two points is a vacation meant to relieve the stress she barely hides, but which quickly turns into her psychological breaking point. As she attempts to get back to normal after that trauma, her uneven footing slips further and further, her struggles at work and with her mother amplified by the sense that some unwanted force has shoved its way into her life. She doesn’t seem able to sing like she used to, and at each dubbing session, the sound engineers pick up some static whenever she’s near the microphone.
In her mid-forties, the round-faced Rivas has a great inherent quality of seeming both very young and deeply experienced. This quality complicates scenes like an early one where her boyfriend near-forces a mild sedative on her to calm her fear of flying as they embark on a vacation. We can sense that she’s used to this kind of treatment, but hasn’t quite figured out how to fend it off. When she is eventually forced to rebuff him, his confusion at the reversal of her usually-compliant nature takes us all off-guard, and she suffers most for it. When, later, she’s stuck in a studio with just a male sound engineer or confronted by her male conductor over her inability to perform, the situation feels especially loaded as her ability to defend herself has become compromised by the recent trauma.
And yet, for all this texture, and for as fine a performance as Riva (and costar Cecilia Roth, as her mother) gives, Meta never really catches up with how gripping the first twenty-five minutes of her film is, even as it concludes with a fairly stirring finale. The in-between stuff isn’t nearly as sharp, mostly tepid suggestions at some kind of marinating psychosis threatening to explode at some very distant point. One never gets the sense, as with the finest of the genre, that Inés is teetering on any kind of edge; the script suggests it, and Riva suggests it, but the filmmaking slips into too great a remove to really feel it. Had Meta stayed as engaged throughout as her filmmaking is at the start and end, pushed a little firmer at key moments, this could have really landed.