When best of the year lists started appearing in late 2012, I noticed Markus Schleinzer’s Austrian film, Michael, pop up occasionally. Upon reading a brief plot synopsis, I was curious. I was curious to see how a movie about a man who keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement could actually be something people wanted to watch. I was curious how such a seemingly difficult film was considered for the Cannes Palme d’Or. I was curious, but not entirely motivated. In short, I knew enough to know I didn’t want to go there. But one early morning last week, I decided to watch Michael and brave what lie ahead.
Minutes later, we watch in terror as Michael descends into his soundproof basement, unlocks a large door and waits for young Wolfgang (David Rauchenberger, haunting in his acceptance) to exit a tiny room of hell. The two quietly eat together, Wolfgang asks politely if he can watch television later, and Michael stares at his food, carefully constructing his answer.
And that’s more or less how Michael goes. Arguments are rare, epiphanies are non-existent, cruelty is suggested (but never shown), and dread is ever present. When Michael leaves for work at his insurance job, he makes sure the metallic shades for his windows are drawn. When Michael attends a ski trip with his friends, he ensures Wolfgang has plenty of food. When they’re together, Wolfgang rarely puts up a fuss, because how long have his cries gone unheard?
Schleinzer is smart to reveal very little about his title character. There’s an ambiguity to Michael that, frankly, most American films get wrong. In Schleinzer’s world, there are no long monologues of prior abuse, or moments of tearful reflection. Instead, we’re forced to sit and watch a monster do monstrous things. Things that recent headliner Amanda Berry suffered through, and Natascha Kampusch (whose story is the basis for Michael) endured as well.
Sadly, I wish I could end this review on a high note. I wish I could praise Schleinzer for his daring film and Michael Haneke-like vision. But I feel there’s more.
I’m not going to give any of Michael away, but if the last five minutes of your movie paint an equally, if not more, intriguing picture than what has come before, perhaps that is something worth exploring. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the controlled effort of Michael, but I felt there was more story to be told. Also, I need to start being more critical of song choices during closing credits. The song that ends Michael is an obvious, financially beneficial choice. The track fittingly appears earlier in the film, which means the rights were already secured. But saving money should never lesson the impact of a film. The song is a wildly inappropriate choice to end such a bold, dark movie. It’s a shame Schleinzer didn’t stick with the restraint he so clearly possesses. Silence over the credits would’ve worked better. B+