Film Review: Gabriel

Rory Culkin shines (and terrifies) in this modest but deftly handled psychological thriller from first-time director Lou Howe.
Specialty Releases

Writer-director Lou Howe walks a thin line with his debut feature, the dramatic thriller Gabriel: building an entire story around a protagonist whom audiences must sympathize with…but shouldn’t be asked to sympathize with too much, because he engages in some awful behavior. It’s a challenge that has caused other movies to stumble, a recent example being Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, a generally enjoyable romp tainted by an attitude towards the violent acts committed by its heroes so gleeful as to border on the sociopathic. 

“Hero” isn’t quite the right word to describe Gabriel (Rory Culkin), whom we first meet as he tries to befriend a young girl en route to his mother’s home for the holidays, with a stop along the way at a college so he can try and track down a mysterious co-ed named Alice. In Gabriel’s eyes, he’s passing the time with an act of innocent friendliness. To the girl’s mother, he’s a creepy stranger who literally offered candy to her child so she’d come talk to him. (They’re in a bus, not a van, but the idea still stands.) Over the course of the film’s slow-burn narrative, we get to know more about Gabriel and his circumstances—his history of mental illness, his relationship with his family, who Alice is and why he wants to find her—but that first interaction serves as perhaps the movie’s most fitting encapsulation of his character: He genuinely wants to be happy, healthy and normal, but the severity of his mental illness (never named) makes him behave in such a way that it’s all but impossible for him to be a functioning member of society.

It’s quite bleak, as far as cinematic depictions of mental illness goes. Culkin gives a brilliant performance, making Gabriel both terrifying—you don’t know why he’s looking for Alice (Emily Meade), but one look at his intense stares and twitchy posture and you know it probably won’t end well—and pitiable. This is a young man with decades ahead of him who is essentially trapped in his own brain. His mother (Deirdre O'Connell) and brother (David Call), both the very model of normalcy that Gabriel wants to achieve but never can, treat him kindly, but with kid gloves, like they expect him to snap at any moment. The only person who treats him like a human being instead of a patient is his grandmother, Nonny (Lynn Cohen), who features prominently in Gabriel’s happier childhood memories.

Though smaller in scope and featuring a far less monstrous eponymous character, Gabriel would serve as a fitting double bill with We Need to Talk About Kevin… or maybe an awful double bill, because you’d need a good 48 hours to recover from it. Both films, though at times extremely difficult to watch, are worthy and well-crafted examinations of the rough edges of human psychology.

Click here for cast and crew information.