Was This Movie Salvageable?  I Think So

Main Cast: Neve McIntosh

Director: Laurence Gough

To me, the thing that seems most curious about Laurence Gough’s 2009 movie Salvage is how incomplete it feels. Almost as if it’s less a really short movie (it’s only 75 minutes) and more like a really long short film.

Let me explain:

The plot begins with 14-year-old Jodie (Linzey Cocker, “Drop Dead Gorgeous”) being driven to her mother’s house for Christmas. They don’t get along and Jodie doesn’t want to go, but her father insists that Beth (Jodie’s mother) is making an effort to spend more time with her daughter. The problem is, when Jodie shows up and lets herself in, she finds Mum tangled up with a stranger in bed. Jodie runs out, goes across the street to a neighbor’s house, and refuses to talk to her mother.

Before Beth (Neve McIntosh, “Doctor Who”) can further try to convince Jodie to come home, black ops soldiers appear in the cul-de-sac, ordering everyone back inside.

Over the next hour, Beth and her one-night-stand Kieran (Shaun Dooley, The Woman in Black) try to figure out what’s going on. Beth’s neighbor Peter is accidentally killed when he breaks into Beth’s house. They spot a wounded soldier in the garden who tells them first that one of Beth’s dead neighbors was an al-Quaeda member and the soldiers are there to stop a terrorist cell, but later admits the truth: a group of people had been rescued by a special forces team, but instead of saving them, the people were experimented on and turned into monsters. One has gotten loose in the cul-de-sac.

Kieran is attacked and Beth flees to her side of the building (she and her dead neighbor shared a wall) where she’s knocked out by one of the soldiers, then tied up as bait. Kieran frees her and she hides in the woods before returning home to find Jodie there. And the bulk of this action is all taking place in the film’s last 45 minutes (no, I haven’t revealed the ending, my synopsis here didn’t go that far). But it’s all action. There’s no character development, nor any real dissection of the plot. We get a very brief recap of the creature’s origin, but there’s so much more that was left unsaid compared to what little the soldier revealed.

Sure, we got the gist, but it was just sprinkles on the top of the big hot fudge sundae of potential story. I want to know more. But the fact we don’t learn more makes everything on screen feel like a big tease. And that’s why the finished movie feels more like a really long short film. In a short film, you’re only getting a snapshot of a particular incident.

Beth gets one short scene with Kieran to explain why her ex had custody of Jodie instead of Beth, and that scene, working with Beth’s determination to make sure her daughter is safe, goes a long way in showing the strength of her character, but we never get the sense this is a change. We believe from the beginning that Beth loves her daughter. Because Jodie walked in while Beth was in bed with someone has nothing to do with how she does or doesn’t feel about her own child. Bad judgment on Beth’s part? Definitely. But it never once feels to the audience like she doesn’t care about Jodie.

So watching her mad struggle to find Jodie doesn’t feel like any change is taking place. And anyway, aren’t there enough “the world is ending, I have to go make sure my kid is okay” stories out there? Give it a rest. Surely there’s some other plot device that can make these situations just as dramatic. It’s always “Gotta go rescue my kid.”

Sure, if it ever happened, that would be my priority too, but these are fictitious stories with endless possibilities and it just bugs me that so many writers are taking the easy way out when it comes to building dramatic tension.

Also, I honestly didn’t feel Beth fought hard enough for it. I mean, yeah, she’s pretty ragged in the end, and she definitely went through some shit to get there, lots of people died, but when you look at it in terms of scenes, it all came pretty easily to her. She gets to expand her playing field by using the neighbor’s house. The wounded soldier out back isn’t dead, so they help him inside and he tells them what’s going on. She gets knocked out and zip-tied to a post outside, but 45 seconds later, Kieran appears and cuts her loose. Honestly, Beth seems to have it pretty good, all things considered. She’s doing a WHOLE lot better than any of her neighbors at this point.

I’m not saying we need a plot so complicated it gets bogged down or that we need so many twists it becomes a convoluted mess. But, you know, maybe at least PRETEND Beth is in danger? At least have the trap the soldiers set with tying her to the post actually work, let the monster emerge from an empty house and start sniffing around. Let the soldiers get ready to take the shot once the monster is in the open. Let the few remaining neighbors who haven’t been killed yet watch through their windows, just glad it’s not them out there. Let Beth see what’s coming for her as the monster stalks her from across the street. It sticks to the shadows, but she knows it’s there by its snarling. Yet the sound keeps bouncing off the cars and echoing around the cul-de-sac. Beth is terrified, certain she’s about to be torn to shreds. The tension mounts, the soldiers are at ready, aim, and the monster is almost there. Beth can practically feel it breathing down her neck. From across the street, Jodie sees what’s about to happen to her mother and covers her face. Beth hears it coming for her and she almost screams, but it’s really Kieran, coming up behind her in the dark, cutting her loose and running off with her. But none of that happens. She wakes up, she sees a couple soldiers across the street, hiding, waiting for the shot, then Kieran is there and he frees her. No tension. No danger. No nothing.

And that’s how the rest of the story plays out as well. It’s all tell and no show. We get none of the finer nuances of a story that make it feel real.

The acting is good, well enough McIntosh won two best actress awards for her role as Beth (International Fantasy Film Award and Best Horror Actress at Fantastic Fest). Personally, I got lost in her performance at times, but not because she was so convincing. I got lost because I’m a big Madam Vastra fan and kept trying to imagine What Would Vastra Do?

The only other character who really gets any decent time onscreen is Kieran, and Shaun Dooley does a decent job of matching McIntosh’s energy throughout. On the negative side, to my American ears, his accent was nearly incomprehensible at times. I know that’s not his fault, and it was a British film, but it doesn’t change the fact I missed a lot of what he said. Still, he seemed a likable enough character in normal circumstances–in small doses.

It’s not often I wish a movie were LONGER, and it was the 75 minute running time here that attracted me because it gave me just enough time this morning to watch the entire movie before I had to take my son to school for drill team. However, in the end, considering the utter simplicity of the plot, I think Salvage is one movie that definitely would have benefited from another 15-20 minutes. Stories are built on conflict and, even with a mysterious mad beast on the loose, this one just didn’t feel like it had enough of it, not where it counts. 3 out of 5 stars to this one.

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