Gozo review: a claustrophobic thriller worth seeking out

Ophelia Lovibond stars in Gozo, a cracking thriller at the Raindance Film Festival...

Some of the most claustrophobic thrillers of cinema history have taken place in sparse, unfamiliar locales. Something about being the fish out of water, the stranger living amidst things stranger still, lends itself to narratives about being victimised by your own state of mind.

Gozo, Miranda Bowen’s directorial debut, endeavors to capture that feeling of crushing isolation and paranoia that comes from becoming the outsider in a place seemingly unwilling to provide the escape you desire. Lucille (Ophelia Lovibond) and Joe (Joseph Kennedy) have emigrated to the titular Gozo after Joe’s ex-girlfriend – having discovered the new relationship – kills herself, but they soon realise that things aren’t going to be that easy.

The couple, more in love than ever on the journey to their new home, find that their guilt and trauma from their part in the event isn’t something so easily pushed aside, and has followed them from their old lives. As Joe, a sound designer, starts to see and hear things while out working in Gozo’s remote corners and crevices, Lucille grows increasingly frustrated with the island’s apparently hostile acts against them.

Speaking about the film, Bowen and Kennedy (who was the source of the film’s original idea) compared their intentions to many of the themes of Don’t Look Now, and its influence can be felt throughout. There’s a couple, a recent death, and a locale surrounded by water that traps its protagonists within their own psyches.

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The original idea as told by Kennedy was to explore how the attempt to isolate yourself from trauma is a futile act, and was born of a writing trip he had taken with a friend to a remote lighthouse. The isolation of lighthouse keepers, he said, was what led to the requirement for three at a time, rather than two.

Overall, water is a massive part of the film, from the bad plumbing that makes the couple’s home almost uninhabitable as time goes on, to the vast ocean that becomes as threatening as anything else on land. There are several lingering shots of Lucille simply hydrating after particularly traumatic events, or of her resolutely swimming in an increasingly disgusting outdoor pool.

Then there’s the requirement for her to go to Riley (Daniel Lapaine), their new American neighbour, for a simple shower. In an early draft of the script, there were even sirens tempting them to sea. Water has power in this story.

Both leads are excellent, with particular emphasis on Lovibond’s performance. She arguably gets the less ‘showy’ role to play, but does wonders with what she’s given. Lucille is consistently put at the mercy of those around her, whether that’s her boyfriend and his obsession, the locals who lear at her within her own home or Riley, whose relationship with Lucille takes a sinister turn later in the film. But she remains interesting and proactive, rather than passive, and that’s a welcome distinction. While Joe gets the more obvious dramatic arc from start to finish, Lucille is the film’s strongest presence, and it’ll be her you’re left thinking about after the credits roll.

Gozo is a tense watch, and the choice to include so many extreme close-ups contrasts with the otherwise open environment to create warring impressions of whether the threats are real or imagined.

The island itself is undoubtedly beautiful yet presented as largely decrepit and unfinished, like the entire place was abandoned at some distant point in the past. There are various POV shots that we’re to believe belong to no one in particular, adding to the characters’ paranoia at several key points. Also, anyone who is particularly sensitive to the effective use of sound in horror will want to be on their guard.

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As an exploration of creeping shame and a descent into madness by the guilty, Gozo doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking, but everything it does is executed with style and intent. The performances are enough to recommend it on their own, but there’s also how gorgeous the film looks, and its ability to get under your skin with the tight, unrelenting focus on its two protagonists.

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