Lavender’s building blocks are so well worn—mysterious discoveries, creaky houses, darting specters—they might well be invisible were it not for another of its defining features: the efficiency and assuredness with which the whole affair is presented. The movie is streamlined to the point that you have to admire its dedication to offering, without so much as a wink, a ghost story about the gradual opening of a locked memory and the catharsis that awaits its heroine. Though it confines itself to a limited setting and few characters, and a story that can hardly be called “dynamic,” there’s a degree of satisfaction in Lavender’s journey and moral resolution. While the stylistic choices are too familiar to be surprising, there’s freshness in the way they are applied.
The film opens with a brief prologue in 1985 on an expansive rural property and the immediate aftermath of a murder scene in a family home. Shift to 25 years later, and we see Jane (Abbie Cornish) toting her school-age daughter Alice (Lola Flanery) on long drives through the countryside so she can take photographs of empty houses, most of them set back quite a way from the road. Jane has a romantic’s fascination with the houses, seeing them as epitaphs to the lives that once inhabited them.
There’s a restlessness to Jane, and she’s distracted by her own preoccupation with houses, becoming enthralled with one in particular. As she retreats into her obsession, we see the toll it takes on her marriage to Alan (Diego Klattenhoff), with whom there’s obvious tension and the suggestion of past infidelity that adds to the overall unease throughout the film.
Jane soon becomes caught up in a mystery surrounding these small white boxes wrapped in red ribbon. For a while it’s unclear whether their contents are intended as clues, or as methods of torment for her. Compounding Jane’s confusion are a car accident, a long-lost relative, and a hospital psychiatrist (Justin Long) with dubious motives.
The movie’s numerous plot devices—the small boxes, visions of a young girl about Alice’s age, the appearance of other strange phenomena—are accentuated by one the film’s best assets: its ominous, probing music score. The soundtrack makes strategic use of dissonant violins that share duty with what sounds like digitally processed sounds to add to the sense of encroaching fear. Like the score, every aspect of the film is of a piece: the downbeat tone, the muted colors of the photography, the ethereal natural light that filters through half-open blinds and into shadowy rooms.
Director Gass-Donnelly films houses and his principals from a distance, a choice that ends up mirroring Jane’s journey toward discovery. Much of the last half of this 90-minute film takes place in one location, the classic two-story American home that is a familiar but apt setting, heavy on atmosphere. Cornish’s restrained performance also keeps with the overall mood, as she imbues Jane with the sense of being in a waking dream, drawn to ghosts that want her to give chase or discover more clues.
The movie slumps at the end of its final act, with a forced showdown and resolution that makes too literal what should have been symbolic. However, an extended scene prior to this is exceptionally well choreographed, where ghosts and memories and the present converge into a revelation. While it succumbs to a lot of clichés that blunt its impact, Lavender shows that there are interesting ways to apply genre elements beyond the bump and chills, and in the service of story about memory, trauma, and resolution.
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Dermot Mulroney, Diego Klattenhoff, Lola Flanery, Justin Long
Director: Ed Gass-Donnelly
Screenplay: Ed Gass-Donnelly and Colin Frizzell
Release date: March 3, 2017