The latest entry in the folk horror/religious cult subgenres of cinema is the Canadian offering The Family (2021) and it is a dark film, indeed. It offers top-notch acting and a heavy sense of dread from the opening scenes, but unfortunately recalls films — one in particular that I won’t spoil here — that have already used certain plot elements.
In an unspecified time but what appears to be the 1800s, on an isolated farm in rural Canada — one that is surrounded by animal bones over which its young residents are forbidden to cross — a sternly religious father (Nigel Bennett) and equally religious rifle-toting mother (Toni Ellwand) keep their children — teenagers Caleb (Benjamin Charles Watson), Abigail (Jenna Warren), and mute Evelyn (Yasmin MacKay), along with slightly younger Elijah (Onyx Spark) — working to the point of exhaustion, a weakness that will be tolerated by neither the father nor, the patriarch says, Etan, the god they serve.
When the father takes Elijah away somewhere after the boy collapses from working too hard, the other siblings begin to question the harshness of the punishments they receive. Then the father brings a young woman named Mary (Keana Lyn), who is seemingly devoted to Etan and respectful of the father, home to be Caleb’s bride but takes her to his own bed that night saying that it is the will of Etan. This sets Caleb on a path of rebellion that will lead to danger, torture, and death.
The members of the ensemble cast convey the weight of their characters’ burdens well. Watson and Warren stand out because of their complex emotional portrayals, though everyone turns in admirable work.
The family drama is finely written by director Dan Slater and cowriter Adam Booth, heavy on period dialogue with a few deliberate exceptions. The main problem that this reviewer had with the plot is its unquestionable parallels with a previously released and very well-known film that I won’t mention here because it would be an instant spoiler. Curiously, Slater and Booth telegraph their big reveal early on with obvious sound cues to which the family members react.
The Family offers solid direction, impressive performances, compelling drama, a nice amount of suspense and mystery, a taut air of foreboding, and wonderful cinematography, and gives viewers plenty to chew on regarding its themes of religious paranoia and oppression, and familial abuse. That obvious comparison with another film — Is it homage? Borrowing an idea and trying to riff on it? — is a real sticking point, though.(3.5 / 5)
The Family screened as part of the Busan International Film Festival, which ran October 6–15, 2021 in Busan, South Korea.