You have to respect a director who is willing to get stylishly weird. There’s always something commendable about a competent director taking a stab at something a little oddball. Unfortunately, sometimes a filmmaker’s knife misses the mark, sometimes by a hair, sometimes completely. Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe falls somewhere in the middle.
The British psycho-thriller from the Austrian filmmaker has an interesting premise: Single mother, Alice (Emily Beecham), is a scientist at a bioengineering company. As the senior plant breeder, her current project is developing a plant that releases chemicals that make its owner happy – think natural Prozac. The flower responds to praise and affection, requiring the owner to forge a bond similar to that of a support animal. From a scientific perspective, it’s a potentially fascinating story, one that is rooted in science you can actually believe. Unfortunately, the plant’s fatal flaw, written by Hausner and co-writer Géraldine Bajard as the logical conclusion of this science, veers into the realm of hard-to-swallow, and that’s where the movie ultimately becomes a muddled waste of potential.
You see, the plant changes the personality of its owner upon contact with its pollen. This isn’t due to an inherently violent nature of the plant, á lá Audrey II, but a scientific oversight on the part of the breeders: They bred the plant, dubbed “Little Joe,” without the ability to reproduce. But, by God, the plant is determined to reproduce, and as it can’t reproduce with other of its species, it mists humans with its pollen in order to do so. The result is that while humans maintain their personalities on the outside, their driving force in life becomes to help the plant reproduce. It’s an Invasion of the Body Snatchers story without the scares.
And that is the major problem of Little Joe. I’m all for a slow burn and subtle terror, but the ultimate “horror” of Little Joe is so questionable in premise and mild in execution that it fails to move the needle. It’s hard to feel there are stakes in a movie in which the “infected” people act more or less exactly as they always have, to the extent you’re not sure when or even if you’re supposed to feel threatened by them. It’s a shame, as the paths laid out might have been fascinating had Hausner chosen to actually explore them.
To that extent, the notable score by Katharina Wöppermann doesn’t actually do the movie any favors. Wöppermann’s score is discordant and chaotic, full of tribal drums, giallo viscerality and squealing, grating strings that turn into dogs barking. It’s tribal and frenetic, deathly serious with a heavy, beating heart. But the heaviness and frenetic nature of Wöppermann’s excellent work is wasted on the glacial pace and muted horrors of the story itself. In attempting to elevate the tension of certain moments, it only serves to underscore how dully low-tension Little Joe ultimately is.
Likewise, Martin Gschlacht’s camera work is excellent, full of swooping glides and slow pans. Shots are often drenched in red with touches of purple, bright crimson and deep plum bursts on stark white laboratory backgrounds. Like the score, Gschlacht’s visuals are heavily indebted to the giallo genre. Strange angles and chiaroscuro lighting feature heavily among the surrealism of the extreme color palette. It’s a gorgeous, stylish bit of work that tries its best to dress Little Joe up as a high-concept film.
Interestingly, the greatest horror of the movie is not Little Joe itself, but how Alice is gaslit by the men in her life, including her research partner and potential romantic interest, Chris (Ben Whishaw). It’s clear Hausner had something to say about this: The most uncomfortable and believable parts of the movie don’t come from the pod people vibes, but the moments that underscore just how often women are not taken seriously by men, even competent, intelligent women in a professional setting. From the beginning of the movie, Alice is constantly being forced to question her suspicions, her motives, and her own feelings. Coworker, Bella (Kerry Fox), has it even worse, making the apparently poor decision in the eyes of her male coworkers to have a nervous breakdown prior to the events of the movie. Thus, Bella, a formerly brilliant scientist and the only one savvy enough to have her finger on the pulse of what is going on, is subjected to condescension and disrespect by her peers, treated as a pariah for daring to have a mental illness. Like the story of Little Joe infecting people’s brains, it’s a dismal, tiresome sort of horror – the only difference is, it’s real and thus impactful.
If you’re a fan of giallo films or highly stylized horror movies, then Little Joe is well worth checking out. Otherwise, it’s sadly a waste of potential that never fully rises to the heights of its premise.
Little Joe is in theaters on December 6th. Get tickets here.