Proudly flaunting its Hitchcockian influences, “Laced” is a stylish, taut, contained thriller that gives viewers plenty to chew on.
It may seem shooting primarily in a single location with a tiny cast would simplify the filmmaking process. But creating a compelling, claustrophobic chamber piece that can keep audiences invested is no small feat.
Serving as the directorial debut of actor Kyle Butenhoff, Laced is a domestic thriller about a young woman whose plans to kill her abusive husband and start a new life with her secret lesbian lover go seriously awry during a Colorado blizzard.
During an unbearably tense opening, we’re introduced to a young couple, Molly (Dana Mackin) and Charlie (played by Butenhoff). It’s clear early on things are a bit uneasy between them — from financial stress to Charlie’s short temper.
Soon, we realize things may be much worse than merely marital discord. Molly discretely swipes Charlie’s phone and removes and destroys the SIM card.
She then goes to work preparing dinner, but she’s clearly on edge.
The reason for Molly’s palpable disquiet quickly comes into focus.
Molly has poisoned Charlie’s food, and she watches in horror as he begins to convulse violently.
She wanted him dead, but she didn’t want him to suffer. Unfortunately for Molly, the plan fails miserably as the poison doesn’t do its job, leaving Charlie very much alive but gravely ill. In a panic, she calls her co-conspirator, Victoria (Hermione Lynch), for help.
Despite being in the middle of a terrible snowstorm, Victoria rushes over to handle the situation. Pretending to be a doctor, she examines Charlie, telling him there’s nothing to worry about and prescribing some pain pills she happens to have on hand.
Though she puts on a convincing act, Charlie sees through the charade. He demands to be taken to a hospital, acutely aware that he’s dying. He pulls a knife on Victoria and confronts the two women.
Molly confesses she wanted him dead, accusing him of being a monster. He begs for his life in a gut-wrenching scene of intense fear and vulnerability. Victoria sends Molly out of the room. And when paralysis kicks in, Victoria mercilessly smothers Charlie with a pillow and murders him, stashing the body in a closet.
Afterward, Victoria goes into survival mode and begins instructing Molly on the plan to hide the murder and destroy all the evidence.
However, as the two women are scheming, a severe wrench is thrown into the operation.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s Molly’s brother and Charlie’s best friend, Austin (Zach Tinker). Despite the storm, he’s arrived to watch the football game with Charlie, knowing how much it meant to him.
It’s not long before Austin discovers Charlie is dead, forcing Molly to confess the murder and reveal the prolonged physical, psychological, and emotional abuse she claims to have suffered at the hands of her husband.
This puts Austin in a torturous situation, having to help hide the murder of his childhood best friend to protect his sister.
Though Austin begrudgingly agrees to help the women clean up the crime, tensions arise between him and Victoria, a woman he sees as a danger who can’t be trusted — putting Molly in the middle of two people she loves during an incredibly stressful and frightening situation.
As the evening progresses, devolving from the perfect crime into an increasingly precarious predicament, Molly realizes her attempt at the “easy” way out may have trapped her in a state of perpetual fear, guilt, and anxiety.
Taking place over the course of one fateful night in a single location, Laced is heavily inspired by old Hitchcockian classics like Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and Rope.
And that influence is readily apparent throughout this taut thriller.
Laced does an exquisite job of creating tension and dread, heightened by the intense violin-backed score.
Like most bottle movies, it relies heavily on the strength of its script and characters.
Fortunately, the performances are strong, and the smart script does plenty to maintain intrigue. However, patience is required in this slow-moving, dialogue-heavy thriller that’s more about character interactions than heavy action.
Buttenhoff also demonstrates a strong eye for visual style which helps elevate the film.
However, it doesn’t all work flawlessly.
In a bold move that may frustrate some viewers, Buttenhoff never explicitly shows Charlie being abusive or even significantly menacing or cruel toward his wife. From the audience’s perspective, Charlie seems like an imperfect but loving and far from villainous husband.
By making this choice, Buttenhoff creates a scenario where we’re unsure if Charlie was really abusive, blurring the line between victim and perpetrator and keeping the audience on unstable footing. If Molly is lying about the abuse to cover her tracks (or suffering from false memories), it changes the entire dynamic of the film. Further, it imbues the ensuing violence and chaos with significant pathos, which is compelling but may be unearned.
I’m not entirely sure you’re supposed to question Molly’s motivation or veracity, but I certainly did.
Buttenhoff never provides a straightforward answer here, which is either positive or negative, depending on your perspective. It will be up to the viewer to determine the backstory and where and how to assess guilt and pity in this bleak chamber piece.
To complicate matters, Victoria is played with cold, calculating, often terrifying menace by the brilliant Lynch. Unlike Charlie, she seems legitimately controlling and dangerous, making us question the nature of her relationship with Molly, as well as Molly’s mental and emotional state.
Has Molly simply traded one monster for another? Is she suffering from some psychological damage that alters her perceptions and confounds her ability to intelligently assess the situation? Is she trapped in an endless cycle of toxicity and abuse?
Is Victoria trying to protect Molly, or did she manipulate Molly into believing that Charlie was a threat, masterminding the entire horrific chain of events? Her true feelings and intentions are suspect throughout, culminating in a chilling ending that will make you question everything.
While establishing these mysteries certainly keeps things interesting, failing to address them head-on overtly robs the film of some of its gravitas.
Buttenhoff hints at but never really explores the potentially deeper, more profound themes of abuse, retribution, and the painful cycle of abuse that traps many in endless suffering.
In contrast to the tense, seemingly emotionally distant relationship between Victoria and Molly, the chemistry between Austin and Molly feels effortless and genuine.
We sense they truly love each other. They’ve been through hell together, and they have each other’s back. Tinker’s charismatic portrayal of Austin makes the character warm and affable, and his presence injects energy and heart into this bleak bottle horror.
By the time it’s over, some answers remain withheld, and those that are given often raise more suspicion and disbelief than provide any real clarity.
As mentioned earlier, this may be intentional, allowing the audience the opportunity to piece together some of the puzzle themselves. But it might turn off some viewers, as it can be hard to invest in or care about characters whose motivations and intentions are unclear or questionable.
It’s also odd to set the film during a snowstorm, which is repeatedly referenced as especially treacherous and theoretically keeps the characters confined to a single location. However, more than one character arrives and leaves during the storm, making it clear that travel is certainly possible and stretching the credulity of the plot.
The film’s powerful climax is effective and ends Laced on a high note.
It’s not enough to make this a home run, and the film ends up falling short of greatness.
But there’s enough style and chilling tension to make this a strong directorial debut and worthy of recommending, especially if you appreciate moody, old-school Hitchcockian thrillers.