(Jacob Leighton Burns, USA, 2020)


Ultra-low-budget SF films exert a special fascination on me. How far can the distance between (very) modest means and a grand, speculative premise be stretched? It’s the path, variously, of Primer (2004), π (1998), La jetée (1962), Alain Resnais’ fabulous Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), Jean-Luc Godard’s forgotten short The New World (1963), and an aspect of F.J. Ossang’s or Raúl Ruiz’s œuvre.


Whatever sector of culture they proceed from, all these films take, essentially, the same approach: saturation on the level of verbal (and written and drawn) exposition; minimalism on the level of props, design, décor. Any dream will do! And in writer-director-editor-DOP Jacob Leighton Burns’ Shifter (an Indiegogo project), that adds up to our heroine staring at an unprepossessing, homemade, human-size tin can – oversize tin cans have renewed validity in this crazy genre since Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), after all. The film has many minor echoes of The Return, in fact, like (inevitably) half of the audiovisual production of the USA since 2020: the diner scenes, for instance.


Here’s a time-travel wrinkle closer to the beguiling +1 (Dennis Illiadis, 2013) than the usual looper/groundhog/Russian-doll stuff: a woman (Nicole Fancher as Theresa) travels back to a moment two hours before her evening date with an old school acquaintance began, but she’s not herself – rather she can observe herself. Doubled! Split! (Get ready for the mirror two-shots coming later.) Well, as we’ve already elliptically, allusively seen (it’s David Cronenberg’s The Fly [1986] territory here), her cute cat (Bernard) survived the test-run OK, so …


But the possibilities for complication are already ticking in our minds: lingering multiples at cross-purposes, occupying (here’s the Big No-No) the same time-space continuum, and so on. And indeed, as it immediately transpires with the go-again turn of the prismatic narrative, Theresa has already intervened in her own life story this very evening. We well know what the Moral God of time-travel fiction thinks of such tinkering with Fate …


Let’s go back to the start. The first 20 minutes or so comprise the usual (these days) character-setting, psychological, non-supernatural, everyday stuff: Theresa’s aloneness, her awkwardness, her nerdy tech savvy, her crummy job at some industrial-science factory, her unrequited lesbian longings, her sad memory of the wasting-away Daddy she nursed until his death. And how she went from putting a broken music-box back together as a kid to building a time-machine “device” (she loves this word) from sheets of tin and bits of string. She asserts twice (once in a quickly abandoned voice-over narration and next in a dialogue): “I did it because I realised I could” – and the ancient Greeks could not have invented a better formula for cosmic Hubris! Throughout, Fancher plays on a Tilda Swinton-type strangeness of look (the haircut aids in this) and a childish lilt in her voice – a monologue patter that can turn weird on a dime.


This expositional part drags a little (as is so often the case) until we get to the first lived time-travel incident – the date – but there are familiar stylistic tics and inserts (also rather Lynchian) that keep us cued to the seething undercurrents: those mysterious churning-internal-blood-red shots beloved of genre cinema since at least Fight Club (1999), or maybe it was Body Melt (1993) – as if to picture a human mind and body being pulled apart and reformulated – plus a range of upfront sound effects including, alongside all the usual low woofer rumbles and sheets of whoosh, recurring dramatic finger-clicks to mark the beat of a likely shift-transformation in the making.


How could I resist a movie titled Shifter – in homage to 1970s linguistic-semiotic film theory, maybe? (See my Mysteries of Cinema for some fun with this nostalgic egghead-term.) Well, maybe not, but who knows? The psychological-mundane material keeps returning to fill the cracks between plot moves – there’s even one of those annoyingly sensible doctors who advises Theresa that her troubles are all a matter of “stress and relaxation”. If only!


Shifter wriggles itself into an odd place. There’s not much effort (or pretence) here about offering a pseudo-scientific explanation of anything going on (“Quantum physics is … a curse!” is as far as we venture along that line), not even gabbled at top speed as is usually the way (Flatliners [1990] style) for this genre. What we arrive at is Theresa’s monologue to her guinea-cat: “The device took us out of our … ‘freezer’, so … our temporal existence is melting”. Normal human existence is a freezer from the vantage point of the time-space continuum? Well, let’s move on, for this declaration is shortly followed by: “I just need to put us back where we belong”. Easier said than done! It gets a bit like what I’ve called the (R.A.) Lafferty Looper at the point where Theresa decides she must go back in time to convince herself not to ever use the device: to build it, sure, but not to switch it on and get in it. (And presumably likewise for the cat.)


According to what we can adduce with our eyes, time-shifting here is a bit like body-snatching – the previous body cracks up and then vanishes into thin air – and a bit like what we saw in +1: the new double steps in as (potentially malevolent) replacement. With, in the extended overlap between these phases most times around, some mildly confusing multiple POVs (like Rebecca De Mornay in the nutty thriller Never Talk to Strangers [1995], Theresa spends time “stalking herself”) and mirror-bodies (of cats and humans) running around in hiding-spots such as the attic.


In one nice touch, Theresa suddenly acknowledges and starts chatting with her double, in a perfectly everyday manner (it’s one of those films that could have flirted better with its flying-forward, iterative aspect: even the weirdest things become routine, once they’ve recurred so often, and those iterations have piled up across a transitional cut or montage, as Palm Springs [2020] shows well … but Shifter doesn’t want to become a comedy for more than a moment).


However, once the split-succession is done, there’s no break in “consciousness” (of self – Theresa is always Theresa, alas, not even the anticipated Evil Theresa), just disconcerting leaps in her experience of time and place … not to mention an overall, ongoing deterioration (the “melting” – or molting of fur, in Bernard’s case). So, no interesting body-hopping variations or mutations of subjectivity are explored here. By about the 50 minute mark of this 85 minute film, the “device” or narrative dispositif – I mean of the film itself – is running on the spot, simply repeating the same, entropic moves. Entropy becomes a lazy device indeed in many films of this sort.


It’s hard to figure out what the “normal” characters in Shifter are actually seeing whenever Theresa disappears and reappears in her spectacular way (the slam-ellipses don’t help here) – despite a fleeting newspaper headline referring to the likely myth or collective hallucination of the district’s very own “melting girl”! This is especially a question in relation to Theresa’s brief fling, Blake (Ashley Mundanas), who gets black goo coughed and vomited onto her during sex, and is forced down on the mattress by a literally disintegrating squeeze. Quelle horreur! But where Blake goes and what she does after that cut is anyone’s guess.


Despite the fast-fleeing lack of sense or well-worked variation (the Tarkovsky-type revisit by Theresa of her dying Dad really doesn’t pay-off, and the woman-and-cat finale is especially dissatisfying), I did appreciate the cinema scene where Theresa attends a repertory screening of The Phantom of the Opera (1925 version – earlier she watched Harold Lloyd’s 1923 Safety Last), and the projector beam shines through the holes in her body, while the next angle superimposes her on The Phantom. Neat! And exactly the way I see myself as a film critic these days: holey but not wholesome, as Lesley Stern loved to say.


I also enjoyed the Hitchcockian Frenzy (1972)-type moment where the camera serenely tracks back from the closed door of the women’s washroom on the factory floor, and other workers stroll by … as a very faint scream of disintegration – the index of what’s going on inside the toilet – emerges on the soundtrack, for our ears only.

© Adrian Martin 8 August 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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