D: Natalia Leite / 92m
Cast: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr, Leah McKendrick, Peter Vack, David Sullivan, David Huynh, Marlon Young, Jess Nurse, Mary Price Moore
A movie that invites the viewer to play an extended version of Spot the Influence, M.F.A. (that’s Master of Fine Arts in case you didn’t know) is a splatter cake of references and themes from other features, most of which are really obvious, and which have an unfortunate tendency to interrupt the narrative, and pull the viewer out of the strange effect that the movie creates in between these interruptions. So every now and then, the viewer is forced to exclaim, “Hey! That’s from [insert relevant movie title here]” before being able to reconnect with art student Noelle (Eastwood) and her attempts at university-based vigilantism. That’s the first, really obvious influence: Michael Winner’s seminal Death Wish (1974). But don’t worry, there are plenty of others to pick out. (There’s a game derived from Withnail & I (1987) where the viewer is required to have a drink every time one of the characters has a drink; you might want to train for it. You could play a similar sort of game with M.F.A. and have a drink every time a movie influence, or reference, appears on screen.)
At first, this is all kind of fun, but the movie soon runs the risk of adding all these references to the detriment of the script as a whole, with Eastwood’s revenge focused antagonist seemingly at the mercy of every pause and insert that writer, producer and co-star Leah McKendrick can come up with. It all begins well enough with under-achieving Noelle in danger of failing her class and not graduating due to a lack of emotion in her paintings. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she gets an invite to a party by a guy she likes, Luke (Vack), and while she’s there he takes her to his room and rapes her. Understandably shocked, she’s further shocked by the attitude of her best friend, Skye (McKendrick), who tells her to forget about it, and a school councellor, Mrs Sanders (Moore), who questions Noelle as if she were making it all up. When Luke invites her over to his place as if nothing has happened, he ends up dead and Noelle begins to walk a very dark path of revenge and cold-blooded murder.
By this stage, the movie has begun its salute to Death Wish, and has done so via a shout out to The Hunting Ground (2015). We learn that Balboa University, the fictional campus where Noelle studies, has never acknowledged the rape of a student within its grounds in its entire history, and the script winds this into the narrative in an effort to make a point about contemporary gender politics, but while it’s a noble aim, it feels just as forced as the idea that a counsellor would dismiss a claim of rape entirely (especially these days), and just as forced as the idea that because they’re male and likely to be sports stars, rapists will always get away with it (even if there’s widely available video evidence to prove they did it). The script adopts then a very black and white attitude that seems intent on providing Noelle with a reason for going all Paul Kersey, but which also doesn’t forget to include moments of sexploitation when she does so (her first targeted victim has to be seduced before he dies). Despite this kind of direct approach, the combination of McKendrick’s screenplay and Leite’s direction doesn’t ensure this means an effective approach, and the two elements tend to work against each other.
Of course, Noelle isn’t satisfied with avenging her own assault, though it’s only when she becomes aware of another rape – that went unpunished – that she decides to do something more. As she works her way through a list of rapists, Noelle finds that her art work gains that missing emotion, or passion, that was holding her back. This idea, that murder can be an inspiration for artistic expression, has been seen several times before, including the likes of House of Wax (1953) and Color Me Blood Red (1965), but here it seems like an afterthought, so long does it take for Noelle to begin using her new feelings in order to improve her work (which of course is immediately recognised as being significantly better by her tutor and the rest of her class). And of course, once she begins killing her fellow students, Noelle has a detective on her trail called Kennedy (Collins Jr), who’s always one step behind her until the end (though like Rick Deckard in Blade Runner (1982) he doesn’t actually do any detecting, but is gifted her identity when an intended victim survives her attack on him). The tropes and long range subtleties of low budget horror thrillers are all present and correct, from the ease with which Noelle carries out her crimes, to the fetishisation of Eastwood herself, as she’s called upon to wear revealing outfit after revealing outfit before finally appearing nude.
With M.F.A. throwing together so many disparate elements, and sometimes in the same scene, it’s inevitable that the movie itself doesn’t always work as well as intended. Some of the dialogue is clunky and several moments of exposition sound like they’re being read from cue cards, but in a strange way the movie is quite hypnotic to watch. This is partly due to the various influences on display (which one will the viewer spot next?), and partly due to Eastwood’s committed performance, which anchors the movie and helps gloss over some of the longueurs that occur when the script tries to be didactic. Utilising a sympathetic approach to the character of Noelle that she manages to retain even when she’s wearing her vigilante hat, she gives an emotionally redolent, purposeful performance that could well prove to be her break-out role. In support, Collins Jr has very little to do except grow a beard very quickly, while McKendrick is erratic as the poorly written best friend whose involvement in Noelle’s life leads to an easily anticipated tragedy.
But again, even with all this going on, the movie is worth a watch, it’s strangled dynamic proving unexpectedly gripping in places, and with a dark thriller atmosphere that, for the most part, is well handled by Leite and which adds power to the material. There are brief moments of levity, a few nods to the kind of life Noelle could have had if she didn’t become a vigilante, and a couple of painful instances where Noelle’s self-awareness has the potential for self-destruction. The ending at least is dramatically satisfying, even though the build-up to it is wayward and not entirely confident in what it’s trying to say. A good try, then, and one that shows promise for all concerned.
Rating: 7/10 – thematically bizarre, and unabashedly dogmatic in places, M.F.A. is nevertheless a dour but entertaining, low budget rehash of the vigilante movies of the late Seventies; with a persuasive central performance by Eastwood, it’s a movie that wears its influences on its sleeves, and which isn’t afraid to mix things up – even if that mixing isn’t too successful – in order to tell its uncompromising tale.