Equals (Drake Doremus, 2015)
I recently was able to watch a screening of Equals by Drake Doremus as part of SIFF. Despite the suboptimal reviews, I knew that I had to go as it makes film number 2 of 6 in my year of Kristen Stewart. While she did manage to deliver another great performance, I can’t in good consciousness suggest this movie to anyone.
Set in a dystopian future where emotions are genetically repressed, Equals tells the story of two inhabitants who find themselves awoken and fall in love. This awakening is not uncommon to this world as it is a highly publicized disease, but is at the same time feared and severely stigmatized. Those diagnosed are put on a 4 stage treatment plan, but there is the understanding that once they hit stage 4 they will be removed from society and killed. Until then, they are medicated and encouraged to repress their feelings.
Silas (Nicholas Hoult) finds himself feeling after watching the aftermath of a suicide, apparently not an uncommon occurrence, and gets a checkup where he learns that he is suffering from stage 1 of the emotional awakening illness. At the same time, he begins to notice that one of his co-workers, Nina (Kristen Stewart) is showing subtle signs of the same illness. After not so discretely stalking her for a few days, she confronts him with the reality that it must stop. Instead of stopping though, they almost immediately act upon their feelings causing them to fall in love. They then attempt to find escape from the repressive society, the at this point tired predictable dystopian plot.
While an unimaginative plot can be forgiven by a high level of execution, Equals also fails to deliver on this account. At no moment in my viewing experience did I believe that Silas was uninflected with the illness. In a world that is so hyper aware of this plague, it makes no sense that he would have been able to fly under the radar for so long before eventually going to the doctor on his own accord. While I understand that these lapses into emotion were meant to be used to allow the viewer to catch on to and relate to Silas, Hoult completely lacked the ability to sell the subtlety. Kristen Stewart in contrast was able to portray Nina as someone who could believably proceed under the radar, but as the supporting character is unable to salvage the film.
In addition to Stewart, there are other small moments of exceptionalness in the film. After Silas outs himself at work, there are several subtle visual gags (Silas’s desk moved to the corner facing away from everyone, his name sloppily written on a cup so as not to share) that show a knowledge and commitment of the material by Drake Doremus that it leaves me longing for a retry at the same picture. Unfortunately, these interesting choices are again overshadowed by the awkward, poorly framed close-ups that litter the film.
Even more so than Stewart, Dustin O’Halloran is the closest to salvaging Equals with one of the year’s best scores. His ethereal sound, is a perfect mesh for any dystopia, but does fit especially well for the sterile emotionless environment present here. That’s not to say that the music is emotionless though. As the film proceeds and the relationship between Silas and Nina grows, so does the intensity of the score.
Despites these hidden high points, I feel the need to vehemently suggest avoiding Equals due to its utter failure from a feminist perspective. While it does technically pass the Bechdel test and though Nina starts as a strong character in comparison to Silas’s naivety, everything falls apart at the half way mark. Nina goes from the strong character trying to talk sense into Silas to a damsel in distress in no time. Once they connect in secret for the first time, she loses all character and is used as nothing more than a prop for Silas to fawn over. This degradation is cumulated in the worst quote I’ve been forced to endure in a long time when the formerly put-together Nina mutters “I want you to take everything. I want you to take it from me.” At that moment I wanted to walk out but endured until the end.
Equals is an unremarkable dystopian film. Stewart’s acting and O’Halloran’s score alone would not quite be able to save it, but the archaic view of female strength and their “need” of a man to be whole dilutes the redeemable qualities of the film to the extent that it should be avoided if possible.