Director: Nicolas Roeg
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Julie Christie
Plot: John and Laura Baxter (Sutherland, Christie) move to Venice to get over the drowning of their daughter, when John starts seeing a figure in a red coat…
If this movie was brought out in this decade, it could be mistaken a run of the mill, carbon copy of lots of other supernatural horrors out there. The plot essentially revolves around two grieving parents, finding solace in a psychic who claims their daughter’s spirit is reaching out to them. However, in reaching out to the dead, along with John being rumoured to have similar gifts of The Sight, things start going awry. However, Roeg approaches this story in a totally different way than any modern director would. For one, he looks past the opportunity to create a spooky ghost thriller, complete with jump scare after jump scare and instead, turns his attention to the grief at the heart of the story. Instead of a run-of-the-mill paranormal horror, we get a slow-burning thriller that takes the time to explore characterisation. And Don’t Look Now is powered by its two central performances. In one sense, this is Sutherland and Christie at their least showiest; playing two ordinary people handling a very real trauma. However, it’s in their natural delivery that impresses. The dialogue flows like the water that is so symbolically prevalent in this film. Both Sutherland and Christie never feel like two actors bound by a script, rather two real people interacting in their daily lives. Before the real grit of the story even takes place, we are captivated at their lives. Roeg films this expertly too. The sex scene in this movie is largely talked about, but its place in the movie is a key piece in representing their lives. Juxtaposed with their love-making, we get the couple dressing for a day out. The two scenes coincide brilliantly, cementing our view of them as a couple very much in love, even if the pressure of their traumatic past is weighing down on their shoulders.
The direction is stellar work from Roeg. This themes and imagery of Don’t Look Now are very strong to this film. They build both an atmosphere and a narrative. The atmosphere helps fuel the slow pace of the film, creating this sense of dread, before we understand what is going on. The key symbolism is the colour red, symbolising the coat the daughter was wearing when she died (and also blood – the end of the film debates which one is the primary source of the imagery), but there is also recurring themes of the doppelgänger (very Gothic) and also men’s failure to communicate. If the deeper messages pass you by, there is still some strong moments to keep Don’t Look Now ingrained in your memory. If the child drowning at the very start of the film shocks you, imagine how it went down in 1973 when it was released. It is a jolt to life that really sets Don’t Look Now apart in the first five minutes. We could argue that the other key scene is the final one and that Roeg holds back the good stuff in wait for this finale. Modern viewers might be dissuaded that they are sitting through a 90 minute film for one jump scare. However, for those who bide their time through the slow examination of character, that final scene is terrific. Roeg might not be strong at the jumpy kind of spooks, but he has a talent for the creeps, complete with visuals that dig under the skin and stick in the mind. The final chase through Venice is atmospherically powerful, as Sutherland rushes through a misty, isolated street, a labyrinth of twisting paths. We know something bad is waiting for him at the end of the path, but no one was expecting Roeg’s choice of end. A shocking finish to one of the more intelligent horrors cinema has to offer.
Final Verdict: Painfully slow in places, but attention to detail in both direction and performance make Don’t Look Now a hidden 70s gem.