Dir. Cairo Smith (2023)
A young woman is taken in by a rich couple after her divorce, but she begins to suspect that their motives might not be benign.
Starting over again is a terrifying thought. You work as an adult to build your life, whether that revolves around family, work, or a combination of the two. The thought that it could all come crashing down, the idea that all of that work and time spent building something can be destroyed by something so simple as a divorce is scary. Sometimes, of course, the only path forward is to go backwards, the only way to resolve unhappiness and obtain a better life requires the dissolution of a pre-existing structure. Cairo Smith's new psychological horror Screwdriver deals with a young woman who is experiencing this firsthand, quickly realizing that perhaps her new life is even more harmful than her old.
Emily (AnnaClare Hicks) has recently divorced her husband, seeking asylum at the home of Robert (Charlie Farrell) and his wife Melissa (Milly Sanders). She knew Robert from high school, and he was the one person that seemed to care for her in her earlier life. Robert is a psychology professor, incredibly intelligent and on the tenure track, while Melissa is a career woman who has started her own business and demands that everything in her life is just-so. While Emily attempts to adapt to her new life while also seeking to please her new keepers, she realizes that her friend and his wife are not as they appear, and she begins to suspect they may have nefarious plans for their guest.
Screwdriver wastes no time in creating an uneasy pairing of Emily and her hosts. Melissa is tightly wound to the point of insanity, her husband Robert the exact opposite, both playing off Emily's insecurity and discomfort. The film creates a prison from Robert and Melissa's beautiful house, slowly building to suffocation as Emily seeks to establish a new routine in a home that will not allow her exploration. The relationship between the trio is bizarre and off-putting, and there is clearly something awry from the beginning. The mystery in the center is anyone's guess, but the psychological horror comes hard and heavy throughout.
For an indie film, the actors do a phenomenal job. Hicks is fantastic as the central character in this hypothetical family drama, and Farrell and Sanders are excellent as her tormentors. The bizarre game of therapy, a patchwork of psychobabble and Dungeons and Dragons, finds Emily confronting her demons as she slowly tumbles from her sanity, and Hicks delivers a performance that is palpably tense and deliriously frenzied. Cairo Smith's script is taut and marvelous, Justin Knodel's cinematography is jarring and disconcerting, and the film as a whole is a stellar debut feature for writer/director Smith.
Screwdriver is a fascinating film, wonderfully performed and excellently shot. It's rare to come across an indie film so competently made, but this one most certainly is. It's a bottle film, taking place in one singular location, and with a tiny cast, and within those limitations it makes magic. There's almost nothing to criticize here, and it's such a magnificently told parable of parenthood and abuse that I can't believe no one has made this before. Cairo Smith is exceptionally talented, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.
Who this movie is for: Indie horror fans, Psychological horror lovers, Unruly children
Bottom line: Screwdriver absolutely blew me away. It has no right to be as good as it is, but the combination of outstanding acting performances and a writer/director who is incredibly talented work together to make one of the best indie films I've seen this year. This is a star-making vehicle for AnnaClare Hicks, and I hope that this one is seen by the people who could use her talents. If you get a chance to check this one out and you don't mind slow burn psychological/religious horror, I highly recommend that you give it a shot. It's on VOD, including Prime Video, now, and you need to rent it today.