Sometimes a film is all about a theme, the narrative, the characters, the setting all in place to further that one simple theme. While this can be the cinematic equivalent of the old “all your eggs in one basket” cliche, it can also be a powerful and relentless exploration of an idea. Eric England’s latest feature, Contracted, is so relentlessly about one certain thing that it feels so focused and finite that it’s hard to believe the film managed to be feature length. While that sounds negative, it is not meant as derogatory. On the contrary actually, the fact that England takes one theme and hammers away at it over the four days the movie spans is an impressive bit of storytelling. The question though is wether this impressive craftsmanship equals a quality film.
Let’s just say up front I’m not gonna say what the theme is in Contracted. The entire film progresses in such a way that to lay it all out here would rob the film of one of its strongest elements. To give you an idea though, suffice it to say that the film deals with the consequences and general aftermath of hook-up culture and/or date rape. The story follows our protagonist, Samantha(Najarra Townsend) as she deals with those pesky mid-twenties issues of trying to find yourself and successfully shift from adolescent to adult. She is the midst of questioning her sexuality, chasing her dream career of botany, and sharing her living space with her mother, all while grappling with the theme listed above. In a very Aronofsky-ish film, England pulls no punches here. In a near first-person narrative, we follow Samantha as she falls apart, in nearly every way imaginable. This unflinching view of this tortuous journey is where the film will probably split an audience down the middle. Beyond the general gore induced ickiness, there is a fine line between this film being interpreted as a feminist piece or as a woman-hating diatribe.
To begin with the horror of this film does start with a man. In a classic set-up of the masculine predatory approach towards women, Samantha is stalked, hunted and drugged. This seems like a pretty cut and dry exploration of the feminist idea of rape-culture. The film then shifts however. Samantha and her vagina turns into the predator, which seems to push forward the old misogynistic view of women as the source of all temptation and evil deeds. Which view is interpreted probably says more about the viewer than the filmmaker, but the fact that Contracted walks this line could probably trouble a large portion of its audience.
Then there are the visual thematic cues. As mentioned above, England is not concerned with subtly here. From the use of the color purple, the signage for STD protection, and the hammering away at condom usage we can see what the underlying purpose of this film is. And that theme and those visuals take priority over all else. From dialogue and character development all the way to simple narrative progression, this film exists with that one thematic idea in mind. As heavy handed as this may seem, it actually works in the favor of Contracted. There are no moments of brevity here, no escapes from the horror of what is happening on screen. This hammering away, thematically and narratively allows the film to really simmer in its conceit. And in this case, Contracted simmers in a really gnarly conceit.
Contracted, with its hazy feminism/misogyny and overbearing theme, could be dismissed as minor filmmaking; a synopsis gone wrong. That dismissiveness would be a mistake though. While the film is small in scope and clunks through some of its more troubling moments, it is still a fine example of what makes England an interesting filmmaker. With Madison County he showed a real knack for diverting a classic “teens in the middle of nowhere” set-up into something much more interesting. He continues this ability to divert a well known horror trope within the running time of Contracted. While it may take some viewers until the final shot to completely realize what trope he is playing with, the payoff is riveting enough to make Contracted a success.