The Tactile Horror of “Felt” (2014)

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Jason Banker makes character studies that are disjointed by design. His 2012 film, Toad Road, was a jagged collection of random encounters, rarely coherent sentiments, and people defined more by the drugs they ingest than any distinctive personality traits. His films work, beautifully, as immersive experiences that only seem lackadaisical on the surface. At their most profound, they reflect, with great accuracy, the fragmented nature of human relationships and interactions.

Felt is a clear stylistic successor to Toad Road, while branching out into new terrain for the director. Banker collaborated with artist Amy Everson (who plays the lead) in conceptualizing this tale of gender roles, the awkwardness of modern romance, and the ways in which psychological damage can ripple and resurrect in our consciousness at will.

The meandering plot moves with deliberate purpose. Amy (Everson) is an artist who’s fascinated by genitalia; the opening montage is of her child-like bedroom, and the seemingly innocent creations (including a Play-Doh penis and vagina) that decorate it. To escape reality, she periodically retreats to the woods, where she dons a shear outfit with a revolving lineup of different masks, but always garnished with a prosthetic penis. Banker presents the woodland imagery as open and freeing – a vast space made for mobility and expression of the Self.

Contrast this to the scenes where Amy accompanies her friends on dates, or to parties; these are filmed in uncomfortable close-up, and convey the character asphyxiating in a social setting. The men are smug and over-confident of their place on the social/sexual hierarchy (“I’m an engineer – I contribute to society,” one guy retorts to Amy). This is best evidenced during a disastrous “date” where a dense, dumb guy jokes about rape and roofies; walking home in the cold dead of night, the guy makes awkward, cliched gestures toward Amy to “help her keep warm” (arm around waist; holding hands). Her blithe rejection of this unwanted affection is amplified by the fact that we only see the duo from behind, relying on body language and vocal affectation to convey what is really being communicated.

Amy’s fatalist demeanor and nasal voice make her an off-putting character from the outset, albeit one who conforms only to her own sense of reality and propriety. Like the patchwork creations of May Canady (Angela Bettis) in May, or the fixation on bodily functions by Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) in Excision, Amy fits in well with these unique and independent female characters, who are as obsessed with creativity as they are their own physiology.

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The character’s wardrobe is also distinctive, and plays into the title’s layered meaning: felt as fabric, the tactile material of said creativity; or a physical/emotional reaction to stimuli. Early on, she wears a red hoodie that plays into the surreal, fairy-tale nature of the story, and also serves as a visual echo of Ellen Page in the similarly-themed Hard Candy. In a foreshadow of climactic events, Amy – wearing a creepy “bearded man” mask – suggests to an unnamed friend that they “become superheroes…[and] rid the world of evil people,” as she flashes the fake penis.

At the midpoint, the red hoodie disappears when Amy meets the affable Kenny (Kentucker Audley – The Sacrament). While it’s left to speculation why she feels attracted to Kenny, one angle Banker posits is his monotone demeanor, which is passive to the point where he just accepts it when Amy and Roxanne (Knouse), giving him a ride home from the bar, dump him on the curb for no reason. Conversely, Kenny’s motivation is also unclear – the film makes substantial jumps forward in chronology (including a “birth in reverse” birthday party), evolving the relationship in a manner that is disorienting on purpose. Explicit backstory is of no interest to Banker and Everson, which creates an aura of ambiguity that reflects the bystander mentality of “why” seemingly disparate people are couples in the first place.

There is a sense of affirmation and empowerment in the scenes where Amy disappears behind her visually simple, yet psychologically elaborate costumes. Placing a barrier between the world and her own perception, the penis is usually front and center, like a declaration of ownership of her past trauma. In a scene where she attends a dubious photo shoot, she “changes” into a bra and panties that have caricatured nipples and a vaginal slit. This sequence provides the film’s only laughs, as Roxanne frolics with Amy in a subversion of the prurient, Penthouse-style aesthetic the unimpressed male photographer is clearly going for. (And, I’ll admit, fart jokes get me every time.)

For those who hate movies that distrust audience intelligence and insist on over-explained resolutions, Felt is a captivating journey that forces the viewer to consider the perspective of a challenging character. That said, I could have used just a little more development. Symbolism, mood, and technique are great, and this is a film I appreciate for just how much can be read into its themes and characterizations. At the same time, the experience overall could have benefited from a few more concrete elements. It’s an odd conundrum: I like the ambiguity, while wishing just a little less was left to the imagination. Weird, huh?

Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

(Felt is available on DVD from Anchor Bay, and digitally through online retailers.)