Written and Directed by: Joel Anderson
Starring: Rosie Traynor, David Pledger, and Martin Sharpe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Alice kept secrets. She kept the fact that she kept secrets a secret."
Death is inexorably intertwined with loss. The cold, cruel finality of it all permanently takes a person from this world, leaving behind an empty space for others to reckon with. This is especially true of violent, sudden, and unexpected death: first, there is the shock of that emptiness—then the desperate need to somehow fill it, be it with denial, acceptance, or all the stages of grief in between. Lake Mungo is a movie carved out of that desperation, and a haunting exploration of that grieving process—it’s unsettling not only because it dwells on horror but also because it’s suffocated by an aching sense of melancholy. It’s a movie that understands that you can never really fill those empty spaces, even when you’ve convinced yourself otherwise. Something always lingers on your soul or in your brain.
For the Palmer family, it’s the memory of their deceased daughter Alice (Talia Zucker), who drowns during a family vacation. Following her death, the family is unwilling to move on: even though patriarch Russell (David Pledger) identifies her body, they sense that Alice hasn’t moved on, as her spirit haunts the house. The Palmers’ bizarre tale unfolds in a documentary format, with both the family and their acquaintances detailing the strange events in the year after Alice’s accident: the mysterious glimpses of the girl in photos, the sordid discoveries of her secret personal life, and the desperate attempts to contact her spirit. Several twists and turns unwind, all of them leading back to the unshakable notion that nobody truly understood this poor, lonely girl—in life or in death.
What’s immediately noticeable about Lake Mungo is its tremendous conviction. Found footage hadn’t taken hold yet when writer/director Joel Anderson hatched it in 2005, so it’s remarkable how assured his take is. Unlike most of the films that would define that approach, Lake Mungo commits fully to is faux documentary aesthetic and is utter convincing—it genuinely feels like some Unsolved Mysteries knock-off. Between the performances and the terrific pastiche of interviews, still photos, and home video footage, Anderson precisely replicates the experience of watching one of these strange cases unfold on some weird, slightly disreputable channel deep in your cable listings. I love that Lake Mungo feels like some strange, obscure dispatch that you can’t help but get caught up in—you might start kind of chuckling at it, but you end up cowering beneath your sheets, utterly chilled to the bone by what you’re witnessing.
Obviously, the authenticity of the approach heightens the scares. Anderson resorts to the sort of sparse but effective techniques that would become familiar during the later found footage revival, most notably subtle, almost imperceptible figures lurking in the margins of the frame, uncovered here by slow, steady zooms. Imagine looking through some old family photographs, only to spot something ghastly lingering in the background—Lake Mungo pulls this trick off multiple times, each instance more skin-crawling than the last. In doing so, it creates the impression of a haunted house movie out of sheer menace: establishing shots become ominous as hell, while home video footage from happier times take on a melancholy air. Even when Alice appears very much alive in that footage, she feels more like a ghost haunting the proceedings.
A series of twists and turns also steadily creates the impression of a Rubik’s Cube: just when Lake Mungo looks to zig in one direction, it zags into another altogether. Arguably the most unnerving shot that’s uncovered by the family belongs to someone who is very much among the living, sending them off onto another, even more sordid line of investigation altogether. It’s a sharp turn, one that stands in stark, gritty contrast to the otherwise ethereal, supernatural horrors that chart the film’s course. In the grand scheme, it turns out to be more of a digression, albeit one that gradually has the effect of shifting the film’s focus. What begins as a haunted house movie forged out of the Palmers’ denial eventually ends up as a procedural that helps them to arrive at some measure of acceptance of their daughter’s fate, with her repressed secrets and cryptic actions lending a pulpy, page-turning quality to it all.
Part of this journey involves the family—and especially Alice’s mother—recognizing that they never quite really knew their daughter as well as they assumed. What’s striking about this turn in particular is how Lake Mungo slowly becomes a genuine portrait of this elusive girl. At first, she feels almost like a Macguffin, a thing to be recovered or reckoned with—we know her only from her family’s interviews and that haunting home video footage. She’s a radiant girl whose tragic end feels incongruous by default, yet it must be said that we don’t truly know anything about her until towards the end, when we’re given a brief glimpse into her dark, somewhat empty life. Certain moments make it clear that Alice clearly felt a sense of darkness encroaching upon her on one side; on the other, there was a sense of loneliness and loss that she attempted to fill through various means, some certainly more questionable than others. Whatever revelations the family uncovers through journal entries and fuzzy phone video recordings provides more questions than answers. That Alice shares a surname with Laura Palmer—the eternally enigmatic, doomed soul at the center of Twin Peaks—feels apt: like David Lynch, you sense that Anderson seeks to find some manner of impossible peace for this lost, broken girl, who feels like a supporting character in her own life and death.
Indeed, the final revelation at the end of Lake Mungo reveals that this has really been Alice’s story the whole time, something even she never quite recognizes. It’s here that the film becomes overwhelmed with an especially bittersweet strain of melancholy: we watch as the Palmers do their best to accept what has become of their daughter, only to discover that Alice herself is unable to move on, perpetually trapped in a loop of missed connections. For nearly 90 minutes, Lake Mungo leads you to believe the endgame here is closure; by the end, it becomes clear that Alice will never know any semblance of it. She lingers on, essentially haunting herself, unable to move on or find acceptance. Lake Mungo is punctuated not with a period but rather with an ellipsis—it trails off into the ether, leaving audiences with the unsettling notion that loss can’t always be conquered and some puzzles will remain unsolved. The only thing more haunting than emptiness is the suggestion that it stretches on, boundless and bare in its vast, infinite sorrow.
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