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Sundance 2021: Don’t try to understand “The Blazing World”

The Blazing World

Carlson Young writes, directs and stars in a baffling horror-fantasy about a young woman who deals with trauma by disappearing into an elaborate alternate universe.

The nature of trauma, and how it impacts the human brain, is something that’s frustrating understudied, largely because it’s different for everyone. Some of us can take the terrible things we’ve experienced head on, moving past them and living a normal life. Some of us struggle to maintain that sense of normalcy, while our trauma lingers in the shadows just behind us. And some are so consumed by it that the entire world becomes a hostile, dangerous place. Carlson Young’s The Blazing World is an elaborate take on the latter, an ambitious spectacle for the eyes that lacks in comprehension.

Based on her short film of the same name, Young writes, directs and stars as Margaret, who as a child witnessed the accidental death of her twin sister. The event leaves her haunted by visions of a mysterious man (Udo Kier) who might be the Devil, if for no other reason than every character Udo Kier plays might be the Devil. Some fifteen or so years later, he’s still hanging around, leering at her and trying to lure Margaret into some sort of portal. 

She tries to avoid this temptation by smoking weed and listening to a TV spiritual guide who, to no surprise, doesn’t entirely believe what she’s pushing. A trip home proves to be no help, with a drunk, angry father (Dermot Mulroney), and a mother (Vinessa Shaw) who seems to be channeling Toni Collette in Hereditary, right down to her hairstyle. They don’t talk to her so much as monologue at her, and her friends aren’t much better. Unable to find any relief, and teased with the suggestion that she can somehow rescue her lost sister, Margaret eventually gives in and enters the portal, slipping into a dizzying fairytale dream world that seems to have been stitched together from several of David Lynch’s movies and Tarsem’s The Fall.

[It’s] an ambitious spectacle for the eyes that lacks in comprehension.

Much of the second half of The Blazing World takes place in this alternate universe, in which Margaret stumbles around trying to find clues as to where her sister might be. By the last half hour you might be thinking “What the hell am I watching here?”, but, again, like a David Lynch movie, the experience is more enjoyable (for lack of a better word) if you just give up on the idea of trying to figure out what’s happening. Young’s primary goal seems to be to dazzle you with imagery, and she succeeds, to occasionally overwhelming lengths. Everything is very big here, not just the neverending dream world, but Margaret’s parents’ house, the nightclub where she hangs out with her friends, and the often intrusive classical music score.

It feels like much of the imagery is inspired by Young’s own dreams, which makes me envious, because my dreams are usually of the mundane “I’m late for the big math test” variety. Even if the CGI is a little shoddy, the art design is still a colorful, over the top feast for the eyes. The problem is that when you take all the visuals and homages away, there’s not much there there. Young’s performance is fine, but Margaret herself is sketchily drawn, a pretty but sad girl who does little else but sit around while smoking and frowning. Her parents are one-note stereotypes too, her father an ogre and her mother overbearing and barely holding it together. All these people have known is misery, and that’s all we know about them. It’s as though Young came up with the visuals first, and then hastily constructed a plot around them.

Nevertheless, you have to admire a feature debut that’s as ambitious as The Blazing World. Young had a singular vision, and put it up on the screen. It would be great to see her put her artistic focus on a straight, non-fantasy horror movie. She just needs to come up with the plot and the characters first.

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Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.