Now I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager, I had mostly three things on my mind: School, going out with friends, and getting laid – and not necessarily in that order. Not so Tristan James Jensen. At the tender age of 16, he already wrote, shot, produced and directed his first feature film. That alone would be impressive. Even better, though: “The Unearthing” is not “just” a promising debut, but a pretty good mystery thriller in its own right.
Of the four functions that he served on his feature film debut, I’d say that Tristan James Jensen the cinematographer probably does the best and most admirable work. Of course, it’s far easier today, with contemporary technology, to shoot a nice looking picture than it was, say, 20 years ago. Still, I was mightily impressed by how great “The Unearthing” looked. Apart from a couple of dialogues at the beginning, who were shot in a slightly monotone manner (the camera shifting all the time to the person who’s talking at the moment, one close-up after another, without noticeable reaction shots or a wide shot to break up the monotony – but that was only noticeable during the first couple of minutes, and got better the more the movie progressed), “The Unearthing” looks pretty stunning for such a no-budget effort. It even comes in anamorphic widescreen! It’s obvious that he had fun staging the shots, playing with the focus, etc. Seriously, you don’t expect a no-budget feature from a newcomer to look even remotely as good.
Tristan James Jensen the director does a nice job, too, even though his inexperience showed here and there. The main issue here is tone. As much as I adored the soundtrack, which taken by itself was really great, it’s a little bit too lighthearted at times, especially considering the darker and/or scarier moments. And even if you don’t take the music into account, the scary scenes didn’t work quite as well as they could have. That’s partly an issue of the (non-existent) budget, but partly also of the (missing) reaction of the protagonists. Now I don’t know about you, but when a woman would suddenly vanish right in front of my eyes, I would freak the fuck out. However, in this scene, and also later in the cave, the protagonists stay surprisingly – and unbelievably – calm. No screams, no (apparent) shock, no nothing. They simply slowly back away and leave. They later discuss how scared they were, how disturbing it all was, but we’re only told, not shown. Anyway, their lack of reaction made it hard for me to really buy into those moments. So that’s something that Tristan James Jensen should look out for in the future: We only believe in something that happens on-screen, if the protagonists seem to believe in it too, and if their reaction is noticeable and authentic. There were also a couple of sound-issues, but those didn’t bother me, since they’re simply due to the no-budget-character of the movie. I’m just mentioning it for the sake of those who want their movies completely flawless and polished, production-wise.
As far as the acting is concerned, the standout here is Angelina Masciopinto, who gives an incredibly effortless performance. She’s a natural, and I hope that the talent that she shows here will result in many more roles in the future. Riley Yeary also gives a good performance, especially considering that this was her first major role, however, in contrast to Angelina Masciopinto, I could see her acting. Her moves, her facial expressions, her gestures, it all felt predetermined, calculated, instead of coming off as natural. That’s mostly due to inexperience, though, and I definitely don’t blame her, since when I was about the same age, I stood on the stage for a school play, and I made the exact same mistake; I thought that I had to act the role instead of simply being the role. So who am I to judge? Anyway, she definitely has the necessary acting chops – now she just needs more experience and/or a more experienced director to steer her in the right direction. As for Kaleb Miller, he falls somewhere in between those two. In the “regular” scenes, he also comes off pretty natural, but when he plays the more dramatic moments (like the bedside admission to Autumn), the fact that he’s acting is a little bit more noticeable. However, given the fact that all three had no (noteworthy) prior acting experience, and worked with a similarly inexperienced director, they all are to be commended for their performances here. I’ve seen far worse acting from far more experienced people in far costlier movies.
Now, as for Tristan James Jensen the writer… what impressed me the most was his restraint when it comes to showing technology. I don’t remember seeing even one cell phone! Thus, he gives “The Unearthing” a timelessness that I wouldn’t have suspected from one of those kids that run around with their smartphones all the time (not that I’m that different, mind you). I was also quite surprised how “romantic” this movie was. There’s not one iota of cynicism to be found here. He also plays it completely straight, not deferring to the modern “Let’s make fun of ourselves” and/or meta-level trends. Thus, “The Unearthing” is surprisingly (and pleasantly) old-fashioned for the debut feature of such a young filmmaker. The story itself, however, was nothing to write home about. I also have to admit that I found the ending to be a little confusing. I had a hard time figuring out what exactly was going on (especially during the “showdown”), and I can’t decide if that was due to the script, to the editing, or if I’m just too damn stupid. I usually like it when movies don’t talk down to their audience, but here, I would have prefered a little more clarity. I also had a hard time with the scene “in between worlds” (you’ll know it when you see it). That’s not an objective criticism at all, but just a matter of taste, since with a few notable exceptions, “spiritual” moments like that just aren’t my thing. Finally, a scene near the end, which harks back to a similar moment at the beginning, suggests a twist that I could have done without. The older I get and the more movies I see, the more and more weary do I get about those kind of last-minute-shocking-twist-endings, and I just think that “The Unearthing” needn’t rely on such a “cheap” trick. However, that again is more about my personal taste than anything else.
Overall, “The Unearthing” shows a lot of promise. It’s not perfect, and there’s some room for improvement, but the talent definitely is there. Now he just needs more experience and a bigger budget (or rather, a budget, period); or, in other words: Someone needs to give this guy a chance. He’s a rough diamond, but with the right support, he could become a great and intriguing new (genre) filmmaker. For now, though, he first and foremost is an interesting new voice that is well worth watching out for.
Many thanks to the director, producer, writer and cinematographer TJ Jensen himself for my very first screener! 😀