Published Aug 23, 2013Though dialogue-free for the majority of its runtime, Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas' simple but effective human horror, The Oxbow Cure communicates its key points effectively. Lena (Claudia Dey) quietly packs up her Toronto apartment without explanation, but fleeting images suggest there was an event, or "going away," preceding, leading to her retreat—a norm of Canadian cinema—to a cottage up north in the middle of winter.
Her acclamation to the property, walking around its periphery and setting up camp indoors, takes up most of the narrative. Lena's body language, being somewhat rigid and cold (much like the environment around her), gives us some context for her stubbornness and her presumed aggressive decision making, grappling with issues related to control. This becomes abundantly clear when a phone conversation reveals that she is suffering from a debilitating spinal disease that leaves her in perpetual pain, leaving her out of control and at odds with nature.
Her relationship with the body and nature presents as the central conflict. When she leaves the cottage or looks outdoors, there's a looming and foreboding sense that mirrors peril with the inevitability of physical deterioration. Similarly, her perception of self becomes evident when she steals a nearby dog, only to have it promptly run away, suggesting that her illness makes her feel unwanted, damaged and unlovable.
How she handles independence as juxtaposed with the rapidly melting ice around her—acting as a metaphor for impermanence, change and ultimately death—becomes as vital as the practical plot points. Determined to fight her illness on her own terms, she also reaches out to a mysterious figure that looms around her property, actively trying to coerce it into her home despite its ominous, threatening presence. Though it's a figure that could prove potentially violent, Lena is determined to confront it just as she eventually confronts her own self-loathing and perception of self as something monstrous.
This sense of assuredness and the complex rendering of psychological reaction to illness—our relationship with our body and identity—gives The Oxbow Cure a lingering sensibility. Budgetary limitations and a slight disconnect with pacing and flow leave this debut feature falling short of the emotional intensity it strives for, but this is merely a minor quibble about a work that understands horror is more about mortality and our relationship with the "self" than knife-wielding villains.
This refusal to bend to the whims of any set genre, a decision to utilize tropes from various historical narrative devices to pad the foundations of a claustrophobic character study without indulging in the specified framework of any of them, is what helps this very slight Canadian work feel unique and eerily profound. (C & Y)