Troubled school kid Kieran (Anthony Boyle) wakes up in the middle of woodlands, bloodied and with no recollection of how he got there. His left hand has a gun strapped into it by gaffer tape. His left hand is shackled to a chain: on the other end of the chain, is his school counsellor Mr Andrews (Robert Render). When he awakens, moments after Kieran, we learn that he also has a pistol strapped to one hand.
The pair of them wracks their brains for a few moments trying to remember how they got into this predicament. It's at this point that they notice a pink post-it note stuck to a nearby tree. Upon inspection, its message explains that only one can survive - the objective of the "game", if you will, is for one to shoot the other before nightfall, in order to earn their freedom. Andrews insists that, being older than Kieran, he should be the one to die. But even with his reluctant new friend's consent, Kieran can't bring himself to kill a man in cold blood.
So the pair decides to run.
But they don't where they are, where they're going or whether they're being watched. Indeed, when they stop to have pisses on opposing sides of a thick tree (the chain binding them together is just long enough to allow for this), they discover a fresh note which clearly indicates that they ARE being observed at close range.
So, what do they do? Does one kill the other in order to survive? Or do they work together to outwit their unseen assailants?
Well, there's a little more to proceedings than that. I don't want to say much more because ONUS is divided into chapters, and each one very consciously wants to throw a few surprises our way. The first twist occurs during Chapter One, about 20 minutes into the film. So to avoid spoilers, I'm going to have to be extremely careful when making mention of anything which occurs after this juncture.
But ... after setting up a genuinely intriguing premise with the first segment, Chapter Two takes a change of pace and introduces us to a woman - Joan (Vivian Jamison) - who's grieving the recent loss of a close family member. She's being counselled by Liz (Caroline Burns Cooke), who appears to be as much of a friend as a professional confidante.
This story soon links itself to the first act, and introduces a key character from that yarn to bring events full-circle. In doing so, it makes it virtually impossible to progress this synopsis without divulging major spoilers.
ONUS is certainly an ambitious piece, telling a tale that spans several months and introduces us to fresh characters midway through proceedings. It's to be admired on this level alone.
However, the film comes undone at several junctures - a victim of its own low budget constraints. Firstly, there are the performances. Boyle is excellent, but unfortunately virtually everyone else is iffy at best. The dialogue bounces between neo-realism and hard-boiled menace, and is often difficult to take seriously as a result - especially in the hands of such inexperienced actors.
Director George Clarke co-writes with Rob Render (along with some additional dialogue provided by Boyle), filming in Norway for the first act - originally intended as a standalone short - and then shooting a year later in Northern Ireland to expand and complete his story. Perhaps it's this gap between creating each segment which accounts for the shifting tones and difference in visual styles.
Most glaringly though, it has to be said ONUS is a victim of its own twist-laden screenplay. The twists come with such regularity that they soon become predictable - you're just WAITING for the next one to arrive. I'm all for a plot which is capable of throwing the odd surprise our way, but this becomes ridiculous - almost "final act of WILD THINGS" ridiculous. And, while the performances and rum dialogue can be excused, I found that this over-zealous writing style ruined events for me.
It's a shame because there are interesting ideas here, and I was initially intrigued by Joan's story - a character not normally given such focus in film. Alas, her story goes nowhere fast and soon descends into (twist-strewn) cliché.
ONUS is presented uncut on Left Films' UK disc. The 16x9 widescreen picture is generally good - sharp, bright and colourful - though there are some scenes which suffer from over-exposure to sunlight, where the HD photography can't cope with the brightness. For an evidently low-budget affair, though, it looks good.
English 2.0 audio does its job in style: no complaints here.
The DVD opens to a static main menu page. From there, an animated scene selection menu allows access to the film via 10 chapters.
Extras begin with an enjoyable commentary track from Clarke, Render and Jamison. Warning from the off that this will be a spoiler-riddled affair; this is an amiable, detailed account of the film's genesis from short film to feature. We learn about the reasons for the week-long shoot in Norway, the laughs enjoyed on location, what was behind the decision to extend the concept, the weather woes encountered during the shoot, the resilience of the actors, the themes being tackled in Clarke's screenplay and much more.
A 46-minute "Behind the Scenes" featurette offers a wealth of footage, and interesting titbits from Clarke. Okay, much of what we're told here has already been covered in the audio commentary, but this still makes for a most engaging watch.
We also get a good 13 minutes of bloopers. I'm not one for these usually, but these ones are fun for the most part. I think a lot of it is to do with young Boyle being in a foreign land (his first time away from home apparently) and his nervous energy becoming quite infectious on the shoot.
Two trailers follow: the director's own trailer runs for 2 minutes and 29 seconds, and is a sombre dialogue-free prospect which utilises a few quotes - "that was intense!" etc - but forgets to tell us where they stemmed from. An online site? Or Clarke's granny? The "theatrical trailer" (I must've blinked when this played in cinemas?!) is a tighter, more pulse-pounding 64-second effort. Both are worthy viewings, especially intriguing in their different approaches when watched back to back.
The disc opens with forced trailers for THE HORROR NETWORK and ABANDONED DEAD. These previews are also offered via the extras menu page, alongside trailers for THE BLOOD HARVEST, JONAH LIVES, BIND and THE DEVIL'S WOODS.
ONUS shows style and ambition from George Clarke. I liked it for the most part but think the writing really let it down, especially in its need to bombard the viewer with twists which really weren't that unexpected. Still, it's worth a punt for Boyle, some fine Norwegian location shooting and for offering a determined gaze into the eyes of grief.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Left Films|