Tom (Anson Boon) stands alone in a muddy field holding the skull of a dead animal. He clears the mud from its eye sockets with a box cutter before being called home by his mother Elaine (Charlie Murphy) and chastised for standing too close to a supposedly dangerous lake. Those are the opening moments of the very ominous and moody debut thriller from Phil Sheerin, The Winter Lake, a twisted tale intended to explore the depths of parental sin and youthful dread.
This brief interaction may not sound like much, but it certainly sets the mood for everything to come. Tom is a troubled boy, if the skull didn’t already get that across, but he isn’t psychotic or dangerous; he’s just quiet, very quiet. His mother is the cause of that, constantly berating him and blaming him for their recent move to the seemingly rundown rural Irish town we find them in. It’s back in the fields of his new home that the film truly begins. Scavenging for more skulls, Tom ignores his mother and returns to the lake, box cutter in hand. However, there he finds much more than he bargains for. Floating to the surface as he approaches is an unassuming bag, more than likely containing trash of some sort, yet as Tom peaks in, greeting him is exactly what he was looking for, but this time it’s human and terrifyingly small and accompanied by tiny bones.
This intro appears to herald Sheerin’s telling of something harrowing and thrilling, yet that never quite happens. When the mystery further unravels, introducing us to the only other two characters of importance, Tom’s neighbours, father and daughter Ward and Holly (Michael McElhatton & Emma Mackey), we are only met with stock standard revelations and stale storytelling. Every single prediction I made about where the film would go came to fruition, and almost all of them can be plotted out within the first half-hour. Undercutting the tension building of the wonderfully put-together dreary atmosphere at every turn is the script, and it tragically undersells the movie.
As the mystery surrounding the baby unravels, the sheer amount of familiar ground we walk on becomes too much, which exposes every other flaw in the film. Tom, who isn’t mute, but I reiterate pretty much never talks, becomes obnoxiously reticent. There are what feels like countless moments where if Tom just spoke up and said anything to anyone, he would save himself a lot of trouble, but he doesn’t. From there, slight touches of overacting begin to creep in as the narrative subsides into the worst melodrama habits. Elaine breaks down and monologues to Tom’s bedroom door; Ward flips out and assaults his daughter, none of it lands, and before you know it, the dominos that were teetering from that first half-hour are now entirely knocked over.
In the rubble, the looking glass into parental sin and teenaged fear comes up with nothing and rings out a hollow reminder of just how easy it is to get thrillers wrong. Countless ideas have been exhausted within the thriller genre, so many that finding new ground to break can feel impossible, but that doesn’t mean that it is. For me, it’s all about finding new ways to tell old stories, like Prisoners, or to delve deeper into the arthouse You Were Never Really Here. The Winter Lake tries nothing and feels eerily like it could have released anytime within the last 30 years, hidden away in time with nobody mentioning it.
There is a story to be told in this gloomy place, a thrilling one at that, but the writer David Turpin didn’t find it. Ultimately the film just needed to loosen up, take a risk in amongst all the beautifully shot rain, but it doesn’t. Even when accounting for the well-composed score by August Murphy-King and the plethora of pretty shots from Ruairí O’Brien, The Winter Lake remains a misfire, and Sheerin needs to take his strong sense of tone and attach it to better script with whatever he does next.
Dir: Phil Sheerin
Scr: David Turpin
Cast: Anson Boon, Charlie Murphy, Michael McElhatton, Emma Mackey
Prd: Julianne Forde, Anne-Marie Gélinas, Ruth Treacy
DOP: Ruairí O’Brien
Music: August Murphy-King
Runtime: 92 minutes
The Winter Lake will be available on Digital Download from 15th March