Opens Fri., May 3 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Rated R. 98 minutes.
Proposed: One of the basic concerns for a storyteller is what to put in and what to leave out. That sounds really obvious. But it’s a huge deal, and deciding what should go in—as opposed to all the other stuff that might, but shouldn’t—makes the difference between a spellbinding experience and a nap. It matters even more in movies than in literature: Ten pages of dull writing in a 400-page novel can be forgiven, but 10 off-key minutes in a movie will break an audience’s faith.
I thought about this principle while watching Eden, a harrowing film by Seattle director Megan Griffiths. Handled in middling fashion, the subject would have some punch: Eden is based on the true story of Chong Kim, a victim of the U.S. sex-trafficking trade, so horror and suspense are already built into it.
Even with that backbone in place, there are ways to mess this up, but Eden rarely sets a foot wrong. Given the potentially lurid material, Griffiths gives the film a sort of committed austerity—which comes to seem more horrifying for its calm approach.
The film’s protagonist (played with a tempered focus by Jamie Chung) is given the name Eden when forced into sex slavery. Within what appears to be a warehouse in the American Southwest, we witness a system in place, a collection of routines for breaking down the women trapped inside. These include not just physical cruelty but also emotional dependence, which turns out to be the captors’ creepiest strategy.
As grueling as this portrait is, something happens to shift the narrative weight: Eden herself begins to use a system. The movie doesn’t do anything so vulgar as announce this to the audience, so we gradually sense her transition from victim to calculating survivor. Much of the film’s suspense comes from Eden’s fraught relationship with one of her captors, Vaughan (Matt O’Leary)—an increasingly tangled connection inventively played by the actors. (The cast also includes Beau Bridges as a corrupt lawman.) The dead, dry locations—actually eastern Washington—are exactly right as a setting for this elemental drama.
Having worked in a variety of moviemaking jobs before directing her first feature (The Off Hours), Griffiths has already gained something like local-legend status. (She recently finished shooting Lucky Them, a project Paul Newman was working on before he died.) Eden has garnered its share of film-fest buzz, including awards at SIFF last year, and it deserves the attention. A project that might have emerged as either dutiful docudrama or exploitation comes to us on a measured tread that is disturbing and genuinely eerie. (Note: A panel discussion on human trafficking follows the Friday-night screening; Griffiths and others will appear Saturday night for a Q&A.)