Case Study: Elements of Horror in Take Me to the River

Genre is, as it relates to filmmaking, an unspoken agreement between filmmaker and viewer. While genres are used to categorize films, to identify their defining qualities and group them with other films with similar qualities, they also function as a way for filmmakers to communicate with their audience. As film spectators, we utilize genre as a kind of roadmap with which we can form certain expectations and anticipate our own enjoyment of the film. Filmmakers, on the other hand, use genre to communicate these expectations to potential spectators, and establish certain artistic parameters with which they can also anticipate, to a lesser degree, audience reception of their work.

A director, when making a Western, knows that there are certain expectations particular to the genre; viewers generally expect to see films set in the past, often times in America, with vast landscapes, gunfights, heroes and villains, to say nothing of the various stylistic choices, often related to familiar music, staging, and exposition. In horror films, viewers expect to be frightened, or at the very least “unsettled,” and this can be achieved through a variety of different narrative forms and stylistic practices. However, there are certain films that seemingly defy these genres, or lie on the periphery of their respective genre classification, or even combine elements of various genres, thus confusing any hope of true classification. Such is the case with Matt Sobel’s 2015 film, Take Me to the River. Though by all approximation, Take Me to the River is not a horror film, it does produce a sense of “art-horror” for viewers, so much so that it works to transcend genre by mixing disparate narrative ands stylistic elements.

To begin, it will be useful to define what is meant by the practices of the horror genre and the concept of “art-horror,” as it has been laid out by Noël Carroll. According to Carroll, a film can be included in the horror genre as long as the filmmakers have the intention of arousing “art-horror” in the audience. “Art-horror” is loosely defined as a sense of fear and/or disgust with the “monster.” The monster must meet three basic criteria, which are: 1) the monster cannot be explained by contemporary science, 2) the monster is threatening, and 3) the monster is impure. The combination of these three traits arouse fear in the audience, and can be enhanced by characters in the story who demonstrate their own fear of the monster, which is then mirrored by the audience (Carroll).

In Take Me to the River, a young gay man named Ryder (Logan Miller) and his parents, Cindy (Robin Weigert) and Don (Richard Schiff), drive to a family reunion taking place at the family farm in rural Nebraska. The three argue over whether or not Ryder should come out to the entire family at the reunion, with his mom adamantly against it. Ryder begrudgingly gives in to his mother’s wishes and agrees to stay silent. However, once at the reunion, Ryder insists on dawning flamboyant clothing that immediately draws attention and ridicule from many of his conservative relatives. Ryder’s penchant for art and his posh, “cool guy” attitude cause his four young, female cousins to obsess over him and vie for his time and attention, particularly 9-year-old Molly (Ursula Parker). When Molly invites Ryder to accompany her to the barn, he agrees, but after a few minutes go by, the rest of the family sees Ryder stumbling back from the barn, while Molly screams for help, the front of her skirt covered in blood. Naturally, Ryder’s uncle, Keith (Josh Hamilton), assumes the worst and is furious with Ryder, which leads to him being ostracised and forced to sleep in an old shed for the remainder of the reunion. Tensions heighten as Keith attempts to reconcile with Ryder, adopting a much more congenial, but nonetheless disconcerting attitude toward him. As an apparent show of good faith, Keith insists that Ryder accompanies Molly to the river for a swim, only to have Molly exhibit sexually charged behaviour toward him. As the film reaches its final act, Ryder comes to realise that everything is not quite as it seems, and that he has become entangled in family secrets that go far beyond his relationship with Molly.

Keith and Molly talking
Keith and Molly seem to conspire against Kyle and his parents (Take Me to the River, 2015).

While Take Me to the River is ostensibly a familial drama that borders on being a tense thriller, it exhibits certain characteristics that are more closely related to the horror genre. Ryder and his parents, though not without their own issues, seem like a relatively happy family at the onset. There are definitely signs of future issues though; it becomes apparent that the rest of the family will not be as open-minded about Ryder’s sexuality, and Cindy has grown somewhat distant from her brother Keith, but otherwise they hope to have a nice weekend with their family. However, once they arrive, and Ryder interacts with the rest of the relatives, it becomes increasingly apparent that they are very different from Ryder and his parents. These people represent an extremely mild, more realistic version of the backwoods psychopaths one might see in a slasher film like Mother’s Day (1980) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). They stand in stark contrast to the more modern, progressive “city folk” that Ryder and his parents represent. We see things mostly from Ryder’s perspective, so we are made to see these conservative, rural people as the “Others,” and, as their transgressions grow increasingly flagrant, they become a kind of tribal monster, bent on destroying Ryder and his parents. Within this tribal unit, Keith and his young daughter Molly are the central antagonists. When Ryder first emerges from the barn, he seems dazed, and is unable to adequately explain what happened, which only exacerbates their suspicion and hostility toward him. He is then subjected to bizarre reactions from everyone around him, seemingly isolating him and further confusing the situation. Molly continues to be a mischievous nymphet throughout, displaying a disturbing libido for her age, as well as an unhealthy obsession with Ryder. Her father, Keith, shifts between violently aggressive and strangely calm and understanding, in an almost sociopathic fashion. Meanwhile, Ryder’s mother refuses to let them leave, insisting that everything will eventually be mended between him and the rest of the family.

While both Molly and Keith meet two of the three “monster” criteria by being threatening (they directly threaten Ryder’s well-being at various points in the film) and being impure (Molly exhibits extremely sexual behavior while Keith has bizarre mood shifts and potentially sinister motives), it is less clear whether they meet the first criteria. Much of their behavior could be explained away by contemporary science. However, it is primarily Molly’s sexuality that allows her to be inexplicable by contemporary science, threatening, and impure for the audience. While there are cases of children developing sexual fantasies around this age, it is extremely rare, especially for girls (Fortenberry). Therefore, while Molly does not technically meet the first necessary characteristic of a monster based on her sexuality, it is a borderline case, and still causes a sense of unease and possibly even disgust in the audience.

This is where Carroll’s theory on horror hits a barrier. While Carroll has done extensive research into the horror genre, his theory is not without its deficiencies, as argued in my analysis of the film Birth (2004). There are a plethora of horror films that involve “monsters” whose existence can be explained away with contemporary science, namely the psychopathic killers whose popularity began in 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and continued to gain popularity throughout the 1970s and 80s. Carroll admits that these films lie at the periphery of the genre, but they certainly do not adhere to the strict definition of horror that he has outlined. Therefore, it stands to reason that Take Me to the River still meets the criteria, albeit not as much as films like The Mummy (2017) or Train to Busan (2016), which clearly lie much closer to the “core” of Carroll’s definition. This is problematic for Carroll’s theory, as it allows for films like Take Me to the River to be considered horror, when few (including the filmmakers) would consider them to be anything but drama.

What is most interesting about Take Me to the River is that it can exist, on the surface, as a familial drama, but produce the same effects as a standard horror film. For example, Ryder functions as a typical protagonist in a horrific story. At first, his life is rather simple, perhaps even idyllic with his mother and father. Then, the “monsters” are introduced, and things quickly become uncomfortable for him, though the exact reason has not been revealed yet. Later, after the incident at the barn, it is apparent that Molly is sexually attracted to Ryder in a way that is inexplicable, threatening, and impure. Ryder is unable to exonerate himself to authority figures (in this case, his parents and the rest of the family), and is therefore exiled. The “monster” returns when Ryder accompanies Molly to the river, and Keith establishes himself as the monster behind the monster, actively manipulating the situation to his own ends. While the ending of the film explains some of what has transpired, it never undoes Molly’s status as the primary monster.

Take Me to the River gun scene
In a particularly unnerving scene, Keith forces Ryder to handle a gun for the first time (Take Me to the River, 2015).

To Carroll, while horror is defined by certain criteria related to the monster, it is primarily characterised by the intention to arouse “art-horror” in the audience. In other words, the filmmakers want viewers to suspend their disbelief enough that they become frightened by things that they know to be fictitious and a non-threat to their own well-being (Carroll). Even though it was not the intention of the filmmakers to make a horror film, there are certain aspects of the film that still induce a great deal of fear, anxiety, and disgust, much in the same way any other horror film does. For example, by framing the larger family as the “Others,” there is already a dichotomy in the film between what is normal and what is not, a common staple of the horror genre. Once it is believed that Ryder commits a transgression, the Others turn on him, threatening him with violence and the possibility of criminal charges. However, once the initial anger subsides, the fear and anxiety is strangely increased. When Keith invites Ryder over to the house for dinner, he behaves in a way that almost seems inhuman. He produces a gun, and insists that Ryder hold it, all the while assuring Ryder that he harbors no ill-will. His mannerisms are uncanny, confusing, and deeply unsettling, both for Ryder and the audience. Anxiety is aroused concerning Ryder’s safety, as well as Keith’s intentions and Molly’s unending sexual energy. Though the initial transgression in the barn is never shown, the remainder of the film consists of long shots of the action; these include shots of Keith staring intently at Ryder, often without saying much, or Molly attempting to flirt with Ryder behind closed doors. Much like a horror film, where audience members actively question why characters wander into an abandoned house and insist on sticking around in spite of the many warning signs, Take Me to the River has Ryder, who allows himself to be repeatedly left alone with Molly, even after it is obviously a bad idea.

Part of what makes this film so anxiety-inducing is the story itself. Needless to say, people are made uncomfortable by topics such as pedophilia or adolescent sexuality in an active state. It is equally unnerving to believe that someone who is truly innocent of any wrongdoing can be mistakenly accused of behaving inappropriately toward a child, and therefore become the target of a witch hunt. In this sense, the film bears a resemblance to Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish drama, The Hunt (2013), in which a school teacher is wrongly accused of sexually abusing a student in his kindergarten class. In this film, the child exhibits an innocent attraction to her teacher, even trying to kiss him, and when rejected, inadvertently starts a rumor that he touched her inappropriately. Even though the child’s advances were naive and asexual, and she was incapable of understanding the consequences of her subsequent accusation, she is similarly a source of great anxiety and fear for the lead character and the audience. However, where the two films diverge is in their respective styles. The Hunt is a rather straightforward dramatic film, in which mass hysteria ensues based on a child’s white lie. In Take Me to the River, the child is older, and far more aware of what she is doing. Her father is equally responsible, as he seems to conspire with Molly to continue tormenting Ryder. The other primary difference is the amount of information that the audience is given. In The Hunt, it is abundantly clear that the protagonist is guilty of no wrongdoing. We see the events that occurred, and we see what caused the girl to lie about them. However, in Take Me to the River, we are not privy to what actually happens at the barn, just as Ryder sees the whole chain of events as a blur that he cannot fully explain, which arouses further anxiety and confusion. As the characters (primarily Keith and Molly) become increasingly strange and calculated in their machinations, we (as audience members) are made to feel increasingly frightened, anxious, and disturbed.

Though Take Me to the River clearly defies genre classification, it does induce a feeling of “art-horror” in the audience. However, it does not fully meet Noël Carroll’s definition of horror; thus, it is a non-horrific film that nonetheless produces “art-horror.” The filmmakers did not intend to make a horror film, making it difficult to classify the film adequately, and making Take Me to the River yet another problematic test case for Carroll’s theory on horror.

Take Me to the River is currently available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.

Sources:

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.

Fortenberry, J. Dennis. “Puberty and Adolescent Sexuality.” Hormones and Behavior, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3761219/.

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