5150 Elm’s Way

cast: Marc-André Grondin, Normand D’Amour, Sonia Vachon, and Mylène St-Sauveur

director: Éric Tessier

110 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 16:9
E One DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

5150 Elm’s Way

When the author Patrick Senecal transformed his novel Les Sept Jours du Tallion (2002) into the screenplay for what would later become Daniel Grou’s Canadian horror film 7 Days (2010), he somehow managed to completely miss the point of his own book. Having not had the pleasure of reading the novel that became 5150 Elm’s Way (aka: 5150, Rue des Ormes), I cannot possibly comment on whether Senecal has managed to misunderstand himself again, but I can say that while this Canadian psychological thriller does seem to be groping towards something genuinely interesting, it never quite gets there.

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Yannick Berube (Marc-André Grondin) is a young man plagued by self-doubt. Raised by an alcoholic mother and an explosively angry father, he only managed to pluck up enough resolve to apply to film school thanks to the gentle prodding of his girlfriend. When Yannick learns that he has been accepted, he is so overjoyed with himself that he takes off across town on his bike in order to shoot some interesting footage for his first week’s assignment. Sadly, when a black cat crosses his path, Yannick is thrown off his bike and forced to hobble to the nearest house in search of assistance. As he waits for the owner of the house to call a taxi, Yannick overhears cries for help coming from the inside of the house. Creeping in, he discovers an injured man locked in an upstairs room and, just as he makes this discovery, the owner of the house discovers him.

The owner of the house is named Jacques Beaulieu (Normand D’Amour). Beaulieu is an intensely pleasant and morally upstanding man who is loved by his family and respected by his entire community. He is even a local chess champion who has never ever lost a single game. However, he is also a raving maniac obsessed with the idea that the world is composed of the righteous and the unrighteous. As a righteous man, Beaulieu hunts down and kills the unrighteous but now he finds himself having to keep Yannick prisoner despite the fact that Yannick is not obviously one of the unjust.

Initially, 5150 Elm’s Way moves quite slowly and the moves it makes are resolutely generic: deluded religious nutcase? Check! Sympathetic youthful protagonist..? Check! Commentary on the savagery of the family, and the masked horrors of suburbia..? Check! However, as the film progresses, an intriguing set of relationships begin to emerge between the various characters. For example, Beaulieu is a violent man but his violence is very well contained within a strict moral code and, while he would like his daughter Michelle (Mylène St-Sauveur) to carry on the crusade, and Michelle seems truly gifted in her capacity to dish out violence, Beaulieu is worried that his daughter lacks the kind of moral framework that distinguishes between the merely violent and the divinely inspired.

Michelle, meanwhile, finds herself stuck between disgust at her father’s moralising and a desire to be seen by her father as his natural successor. Yannick’s presence in the house drives a wedge between father and daughter as Beaulieu soon realises that Yannick’s inherent goodness makes him a more natural successor than Michelle. Similarly, the presence of a handsome young man under the same roof prompts Beaulieu’s wife Maude (Sonia Vachon) to begin questioning her attachment to her husband and her willingness to trust him implicitly.

Aware that Yannick’s presence in the house is beginning to affect the family, Beaulieu makes him an offer: Beaulieu has never been beaten in a game of chess because he is always right. If Yannick can beat him, just once, then it will prove to Beaulieu that he can make mistakes and that he was wrong to keep Yannick prisoner. As relationships inside the house start to degrade and the atmosphere becomes more and more tense, Yannick’s desire to beat Beaulieu at chess rapidly moves from hope to obsession and from obsession to madness. By the end of the film, Yannick comes to share Beaulieu’s belief that the chessboard is as much a moral crucible as it is an area of play.

Visually, 5150 Elm’s Way is nothing much to write home about. Director Éric Tessier does a good job recreating the fragile blandness of a suburban home but his visual imagination and budget are insufficient to deliver the few moments of jaw-dropping horror that are clearly supposed to hold up the plot. Indeed, Michelle is clearly supposed to be a scarcely contained well of homicidal fury but those moments where she lets rip on Yannick reveal her bark to be much worse than her bite. There are also a number of sequences in which Yannick drifts off into some dream world where he plays Beaulieu at chess and, while these sequences are quite elegantly designed, it is not at all clear what it is that they are supposed to represent. In fact, this is a criticism that applies to the film as a whole.

While 5150 Elm’s Way contains some brilliantly conceived and performed characters bouncing off each other in all kinds of fascinating ways, the complex interplay of all of these characters results in so many different dramatic threads that they all sort of blur into one another to create a huge indecipherable mess. For example, while Beaulieu and his daughter ‘have issues’, Tessier repeatedly has Yannick hallucinate that his father is Beaulieu. This creates a whole new area of drama which, obviously enough, feeds back into the confrontation between the two men but because these hallucinations only occur a couple of times in the film, and are never really explained, they serve only to muddy the waters regarding Yannick’s growing investment in his nightly chess games with Beaulieu.

Lacking a clear focus or the sort of directorial discipline that might allow the visuals to cut a swathe through a dense thicket of plotlines, 5150 Elm’s Way comes very close to being genuinely interesting only to fall apart in the final stretch. Lacking both the clarity required of genuine insight and the technical flair that’s required to be genuinely thrilling, this Canadian thriller is more like a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos than it is a game of chess.

The DVD copy I received featured no extras and, despite looking at a number of other reviews, I see no reason for thinking that the retail DVD might be any different. Boo.