Directed by: D.W. Brown, Runtime: 110 minutes
Underutilized actor Nick Stahl, best known from his roles as an earthy super-powered prophet in HBO's Carnivale, continues his streak of flimsy direct-to-video appearances with On the Inside, an institutional drama-thriller from Haunting in Connecticut director D.W. Brown. Here, Stahl plays a college art professor, Allen, who's recently been arrested and jailed for murdering the man that raped his girlfriend, only he's been funneled into Northwood psychiatric ward -- among murderers, rapists, and other deranged pariahs -- for evaluation of his mental state. Out of the starting gate, the film puts its audience on analytical high-alert; submerged in the grounds of a mental institution and interacting with eccentric outsiders, it leaves one wondering whether we're absorbing the real or surreal, whether Allen offers a reliable point-of-view or not, and what Brown's trying to tell us about human nature. To the film's disadvantage, On the Inside leaves one scratching their heads beyond the end credits over its provocative questions, culminating in a fruitless and disconcerting suspenseful exercise that meanders in both literal and abstract arenas.
Certain elements hint at something under the surface of On the Inside, but Brown's direction makes it unclear whether it's all an intended effect or a symptom of tongue-tied storytelling. Allen engages in several bizarre, contrived conversations once he enters the facility: he amicably chats up a twitchy-eyed, unsettling creep (Ben Marshall) with a thing against women due to a "glandular problem", as well as a fury-driven lunatic (Dash Mihok) who's ready to stab anyone who looks at him wrong. This banter, from skin-crawling peculiarity to alarming ferocity, goes about as expected in relation to the characters' types; yet, there's an undeniable strangeness present that'll get some pondering the authenticity of what's going on. It doesn't help that the staff around the hospital aren't acting normally, from a popular guard (Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought from The Roots) recently back from a mysterious vacation to the experimental drug-happy warden (a wrongly-used, off-game Shohreh Aghdashloo) who videotapes interviews with the inmates. Couple that with flashbacks to Allen's past, and you've got something peculiar going down in Northwood.
This type of film's effectiveness, where the viewer explores someone that's surrounded by mental convolution, pivots on how personally the audience knows the main character, an area where On the Inside falters early on. Director Brown gives us little time to understand Allen before throwing him in the fray; after a quick flash that reveals the lead-up to his wrongdoing, and the "justification" behind his actions, the film transitions to his stint in the mental institution with hardly any character foundation or a grasp on how unstable he may or may not be. We're left grasping in the dark about Allen's integrity, all the way to a point where he's moved to a minimum security portion of the hospital, where he's allowed to interact one-on-one with Mia (Olivia Wilde), a beautiful but troubled girl with bipolar disorder. It's unclear whether Allen's relative nobility makes him trustworthy or a psychopath pulling the wool over the off-kilter institution's eyes, and while some could argue that it's a basis for interpretation, the set-up doesn't offer a sturdy anchor in how to perceive his temperament. Allen's exaggerated and volatile flashbacks to childhood aren't enough to supplant this.
On the Inside originated as the germ of a dialogue-driven stage play that later blossomed into a feature-length film, and I believe it could've provided its dark and zany perspective more clearly in the former venue. Director Brown knows how to imbue his actors with persuasive dramatic vigor; he crafts haunted, lost expressions of weathered psyches in Nick Stahl and Olivia Wilde that intensify as Allen and Mia interact more intimately, while the eccentric psychosis of the other high-security inmates achieve their intended discomforting presences, a mix of unpredictable violence and repulsiveness. Yet, the way it's realized feels like a muddled hodgepodge of Girl, Interrupted and The Ward, with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Natural Born Killers as distant inspirations, uncertain of its direction and oblivious to its desired scope. Eventually, the material juxtaposes calmness between the stable inmates with "loonies running the loony bin" chaos that's driven by limp, confused violence and little enthralling significance, not knowing how to properly punctuate the attention-grabbing, exaggerated entities maneuvering around Allen.
On the Inside simply feels ... off, like a network of red herrings, stylistically-composed visual cues, and emblematic pathways that lead to the end of a cerebral psychodramatic maze which, really, isn't much of a brain-challenging exit point. Several elements possess an air of implausibility and suspicion that dampen its authenticity, from the Northwood staff's unexplainably strange behavior and The Ward's laid-back screening processes to the uncanny ways that Allen interacts with the other inmates. They read like suggestive pokes-'n-prods to make viewers contemplate what they're seeing, as if figurative layers are meant to be peeled back, and the outline of a stimulating viewpoint could be seen in the material D.W. Brown presents with an open mind. Like this, Brown's film lacks the convincing expressive tension and thematic point it needs around the story's shocking turns to justify its gritty psychological approach, one wanting to latch onto a statement about innocuous persons within institutions that doesn't materialize.
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