Ginger Nuts of Horror
Review by Joe X Young
Who’s Watching Oliver has done rather well for itself on the festival circuit, gathering numerous awards with five for Best Picture, two for Best Actor (Russell Geoffrey Banks) and one each Best Supporting Actress (Sara Malakul Lane and Margaret Roche respectively), and it’s easy to tell why when you see it. Oliver has an undisclosed mental illness, but given the nature of his actions during his ‘normal’ but very OCD daily routine it’s possibly an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, which in no way validates the more abnormal parts of his day. He’s quite the visually awkward specimen, tall and slim with a look initially reminiscent of a young Elvis, in this case though it’s Costello with his lean pallid face, NHS glasses and old fashioned dress sense. Already someone who may stand out in a crowd, but Oliver stands out even more when considering that he is living in an area of Thailand where there aren’t that many English people around, which makes it somewhat implausible that he could be a successful serial killer as his description would be simple to give. ‘Last seen with tall, skinny, nerdy four-eyed white guy’ would certainly narrow things down.
I’m not entirely certain why the film is set in Thailand, as it’s never actually made clear what Oliver does for a living if anything, or how he came to be there. He carries an old camera a lot, so maybe he’s a professional photographer or perhaps just a happy amateur, does that matter though? Not really, but maybe some explanation would have been better than none. There is a big bonus to Oliver being in Thailand though, and that’s the sex trade. Whilst it’s true that prostitutes are universally available there are those who may not want to go off with someone like Oliver, but Thai women have a reputation of being less picky, so it makes sense that he would find no shortage of victims.
Another thing noticeably missing from this film is any sense of Police involvement. Women are vanishing on a regular basis, yet there’re no news reports or apparent investigations. One can conclude that perhaps they go missing with such frequency that it’s considered normal and not worth the paperwork. Suffice to say that Oliver is at liberty to routinely abduct and murder at random without any come-uppance or fear of capture.
Awards aside, all of this so far appears as if I am criticising a bad film, however that’s not the case. Some films have their moments, but not this one; it’s a constant stream of absorbing content even when nothing gruesome is happening, which is all down to the central character of Oliver. In American Psycho we have Patrick Bateman directly involving us with his narrative, and here one is similarly involved but rather than breaching the fourth wall we are a fly on it, watching Oliver as he talks to himself, constantly rehearsing what he is going to say to people, especially to his mother. (More on her later.) These moments are carefully played out, with some light scenes bordering on the romantic when Oliver meets the enchanting Sophie at an amusement park and they get on well enough that he doesn’t want to take her home and cut her up. The big deal here is that Oliver is actually a nice guy; he doesn’t want to kill anyone but is bullied into it, which in a lot of other films doesn’t quite work, but in this case it’s perfect, largely as there’s a sense that we’re not watching Russell Geoffrey Banks playing a serial killer called Oliver, but are actually watching a real person called Oliver, the acting is THAT good. We’re treated to all of the subtleties of his personality, what he is like as a disabled person when on or off his meds, and what he thinks of other people and his situation, and Banks nails it as if he is it.
Now on to Sophie. Ah, dear lovely Sophie. She’s a bit of a babe, and at first I’m thinking ‘WTF!’ why would a girl like that approach him? But then I got it. This is where personal experience comes in. A few decades ago I was sitting in a huge but empty waiting room; we’re talking ballroom size here, with chairs around the walls. I’m alone. In walks this young woman, tall, lean and easy on the eye…
She sits right next to me, not even a chair away. There were dozens of empty chairs to choose from. I’m no oil painting and have the awkwardness which comes as a package deal with Autism, so what gives? We became friends, and one day I asked her why she sat next to me that day. She replied that she would never normally do anything like that, but there was just something… With that she shook her head and trailed off. I think it’s the same way with Sophie and Oliver; he was sitting alone and she succumbed to his gravitational pull. As with Oliver, Sophie is a real person, she has an essence of compatibility and ease of personality which Oliver finds strange yet hard to resist. They are drawn to one-another and this makes everything else which goes on all the stronger in its incongruity.
The third wheel here is ‘Mama’ (Margaret Roche). There’s a back-story in which we discover that something really bad happened to Oliver when he was a kid and his Mama saved him. She’s held it over him ever since and bullies him into pleasing her by raping and killing women while she watches him over a webcam. She is however the one fly in this film’s ointment as to me she is one-dimensional and almost comically sadistic. I found Margaret Roche’s portrayal to be the least convincing of all, but given that the other characters all came across as real people that’s hardly surprising.
There’s a support cast of Oliver’s victims, all of whom were appropriately and realistically freaked out by their predicaments. As mentioned there are rape scenes, which in a lot of films don’t have a true place in the plot. I think there’s a fine line where the actions are an indication of an overall state of mind. Could Oliver just murder the women? Of course he could, but he’s not in charge so he has to do as he’s told, which compounds the violence of the assault. Fortunately the rape scenes are few, enough so we know it goes on and why, but we’re not shown it with each victim. Similarly with the murders, they are not gratuitous yet we do get the full impact of Oliver’s brutality.
Production values were all high; the sound excellent and set design for his home was suitably basic with an overall lack of glamour making everything just that little bit more ordinary.
Who’s Watching Oliver deserves a place on any horror fan’s shelf, sandwiched in between American Psycho and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I hope it gets widespread distribution so you can all be watching Oliver too.