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Gateway

“Gateway” is a grim, hypnotic, mostly successful marriage of austere Irish crime drama and eerie, supernatural horror.

Gateway

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We Irish are a morbid bunch. I’m not sure if it’s the legacy of colonialism, brutal wars, and famine in our collective consciousness lending us a more frank understanding of the fragility of life, but death never seems too far from the minds of Irish people the world over.

I’m a few generations removed from my Irish ancestry, but this sensibility feels hardwired into my DNA. It’s probably why I like horror so much.

That morbid fascination is often shot through with a welcome dose of black humor, one last laugh on the slow march to the gallows. But there’s little humor to be had in today’s film, 2022’s Gateway, written and directed by Niall Owens in his feature debut.

(You can watch Owens’ IFTA nominated short, Animal, right here — a story about a Man who escapes from a life of slavery in a modern-day world.)

GATEWAY follows a group of mid-level weed distributors looking for a quiet place to grow enough product to pay off a gangster named Cyril (Jimmy Smallhorne, quietly intimidating in a one-scene role).

With only two months to come up with the money, they get a tip about an abandoned house where nobody goes, with an attic that seems perfect for growing. 

But each of these men is nursing their own private pain, taking their minds off their mission.

Mike (Tim Creed, Dominion Creek) is still reeling from his sister’s murder a month prior; Joe (Kevin Barry, Michael Inside) has a contentious relationship with his ex, his drinking threatening to get in the way of seeing his daughter Sarah.

Eddie (Laurence Ubong Williams, Humans) is grieving the loss of his adopted dad, who disowned him when he found out what he was up to (two other guys aren’t given any backstory, but one of them is used basically as a proof-of-concept, and the other one has the good sense to get the hell out of there).

It doesn’t take long before strange goings-on begin happening, as the house seems to prey on their fears, sorrow, and guilt, drawing them towards a mysterious wooden gateway inside of a locked room, leading to disastrous results for them all.  

Owens leaves a lot of what’s going on up to our own interpretation, preferring for many questions to go unanswered.

What is this house? What does it want with these men? Who are the mysterious man and woman (John Ryan Howard and Rosie O’Regan) who keep showing up? Just what the hell is going on here anyway?

Some viewers may find this approach frustrating, but I’ve come to appreciate art that doesn’t spell everything out for us and leaves us with something to ponder.

Mainstream horror, in particular, has a tendency to over-explain itself, making its monsters much less frightening in the process (think about how much scarier Michael Myers was before each successive sequel chipped away at his mystery).

The fact that its horror is largely left unexplained allows it to take root in our imaginations.

It’s entirely possible that Gateway has many equally valid interpretations, but to me, it feels like a representation of the corrosive effect of violence and the hollowness of retribution.

The gateway allows the men to indulge in their own violent fantasies, seeking revenge on those they blame for their circumstances, but that violence only leads to further violence. Only by disrupting the violent cycle is there any hope for escape.

It’s maybe not the most novel analysis, but much like its titular structure, the film feels built to give us the opportunity to see what we want to see. 

If that kind of ambiguity doesn’t appeal to you, luckily, the actors keep one foot firmly planted on terra firma.

Creed, in particular, gives a deeply wounded, haunted performance, where his guilt and grief are palpable just below the surface. Barry and Williams also carry their characters’ wounds deftly, mostly choosing to bottle up their pain to focus on the task at hand, but it’s never very far behind their eyes.

The film makes strong use of its limited locale, with Ger Murphy’s dusky cinematography a match for its bleak world, and its dips into surreal, dreamlike horror make for an interesting contrast.

It might not break down any barriers, but it’s an effective, disquieting film and one that marks Owens as a promising talent to watch out for.

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