Save for exactly one nightmare, "Separation" feels inert and lazy

Separation (2021)

“From the director of ‘The Devil Inside’” probably isn’t the most encouraging marketing coup, but here we are with director William Brent Bell’s “Separation.” The thing about this feeble horror movie is that it seems to be striving to be the darkly macabre version of “Kramer vs. Kramer” (and not just because it happens to co-star Meryl Streep’s real-life daughter). There’s nothing wrong with that concept—in fact, sign me up—except “Separation” for the most part plays like a custody drama about a deadbeat father getting his life together, only to be a little forgetful that it was trying to be a horror movie. Save for one single moment that is the stuff nightmares are made of, “Separation” is dramatically inert when it should be involving, and it’s lazy when it should be unsettling.

Unemployed comic book artist Jeff (Rupert Friend) has hit a wall both creatively and in his contentious marriage with Maggie (Mamie Gummer), a successful attorney from working for her well-off father (Brian Cox). They do still live together in a Brooklyn brownstone and share a daughter—8-year-old Jenny, played by Violet McGraw—but she gets caught in the middle of her parents’ arguments. Besides the couple paying for babysitter Samantha (Madeline Brewer), Jenny spends most of her time alone playing with a set of creepy marionette dolls, all inspired by her parents’ once-popular comic book series called “The Grisly Kin.” Once Maggie files for divorce and sole custody of Jenny, Jeff has a wake-up call, even to the point of hesitantly taking an inking job at an old friend’s comic book company. Everything changes, though, when Maggie, while on the phone with Jeff, is killed in a hit and run. Maggie’s body is barely cold before Jenny begins acting strangely, regressing to baby talk and talking to imaginary friends, perhaps the spirit of her mother in the life-sized form of one of her doll friends.

One can imagine an imaginative, unnerving, even poignant movie converging a child custody situation and the supernatural, but with "Separation," director William Brent Bell (2020's "Brahms: The Boy II") fails in making both parts come together. First off, the animosity between Jeff and Maggie comes out in such full force, therefore making Jeff and Jenny’s grief over his wife and her mother ring emotionally hollow. Despite Maggie’s understandable exasperation for not seeing her partner pull his weight (and Mamie Gummer’s committed efforts), the character only hits one note that of a prickly, combative shrew. Meanwhile, Jeff doesn't engender much rooting interest himself, and he’s a bit of a bore who’s still trying to ride on his faded success. When Jeff has a hilarious brush with death (read: a very close call with a car speeding by as he exits another car), it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if he joined Maggie. Then there’s Madeline Brewer, whose welcome presence and talent in usually playing wild cards do not deserve the nothing role of the flirtatious Samantha. If anyone fares any better, it is Brian Cox, playing a grandfather who may be rich (that's a shorthand for evil) but actually doesn’t seem like such a bad guardian for Jenny, and Violet McGraw (Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House”) gives Jenny’s reactions her all.

The script by first-timers Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun feels under-thought as a whole, and yet it (hopefully) wants us to laugh at some of the oddball contrivances. At Jeff’s work, a British comic book artist (Simon Quarterman) just so happens to be an expert in the occult and ends up having a solution for his dead wife hauntings: an ancient box of Ayahuasca, which Jeff ends up taking with him on the train as if it were a paperback. Who knew a hallucinogenic brew could help make contact with an angry dead wife? Between certain strange stretches, the pacing just grinds to a crawl. If anything actually works, it’s Hungarian artist Zsombor Huszka's design of the Grisly Kin puppets that get thrown to the wayside. In tandem with the dolls’ design, there is exactly one sequence of nightmare fuel involving one of Jeff’s creations, a devil-grinned jack-in-the-box reminding of Art the Clown from “Terrifier” and contorting himself every which way down a hallway. A living special effect next to Javier Botet, contortionist Troy James has never made a monstrous creation that wasn't startling, and the menace he projects through his physicality should not go unnoticed. Even so, this sequence (a dream within a dream as a matter of fact) feels disconnected from the rest of the film.

“Separation” culminates with a late-game plot reveal that clears things up but still muddies them and revels in the hoariest trope: a scorned, crazier-than-a-shithouse-rat woman out of one of those '90s "... from Hell" thrillers. Director Bell does bring a fairytale-like visual eye to the climax, as the sky outside of Jeff’s brownstone turns blood-red with gnarled trees appearing. It’s just mind-boggling how many creative choices throw the movie completely off the rails, not to mention a random cut to black before Maggie’s spirit charges at Jeff. To compound such problems, there is even a stinger after the end credits get three names in, and if any movie ever needed to set up a sequel, it is certainly not “Separation.”

Grade: C -

Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment are releasing “Separation” (107 min.) in theaters on April 30, 2021.