Written and directed by Julius Onah, co-written by J.C. Lee, a married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student. Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Astro.
To make a film that genuinely plays psychological games with its audience is a lofty goal but Luce comes out guns blazing to hit that target. It brings complex, rich characters with complicated relationships to tackle race, prejudice, expectations, familial responsibility and the psychological scars of violence, among others. The sheer amount of different issues that this film attempts to tackle is an achievement in itself, it’s a type of story that’s sorely missing in recent cinema; however, whether it succeeds in its attempt to bring so many layers through in its 109-minutes is similarly complicated.
The sheer amount of tension, suspense and piercing doubt that Onah manages to sew into this film’s opening is incredibly impressive, it quickly grabs your attention and holds you in a firm grasp of mystery. It’s then all the more disappointing that the rest of the film can’t live up to those initial strengths, losing its focus around the half-way point, cutting off that previous pace and atmosphere, wandering away from the heart of the story. The more surprising turn is instead of heading into a slow decline as you’d expect, it tries to compensate by ramping up the progress of its story, creating a jarring change in energy which entirely throws off its previously subtle yet powerful tone for something more cheap and typical. That change can mostly be seen through Spencer’s Harriet and how her concerns get hastily more vocal and impatient but similarly with Harrison’s Luce, he falls into a repetitive pattern that rids him of any sincere sympathy or mystery. Ultimately it feels as if the writers are trying to tell a much more intelligent story than they’ve ended up with; the psychological elements fall away for something much simpler and that earlier intrigue and mystery feels disappointingly wasted, having shown its hand much too soon. After playing with your perception of the story so well, it picks a side and does so in an unconvincing, half-hearted manner resulting in a frustrating and unsatisfying finale.
Despite those issues Spencer provides yet another brilliant performance, melding a darker side with the compassion she’s portrayed so well time and time again; she manged to handle that jarring change gracefully, stepping up the emotions of her performance to compensate. Spencer portrays Harriet as a complex, whip smart and committed woman, exploring the idea that people may appear to fit certain personas but sometimes there are complicated reasons behind it. Unfortunately Harrison’s performance is a bit more problematic, while he does a fantastic job brining in Luce’s cold, calculating determination and constant emotional manipulation, it feels as though he could have pulled back slightly in the latter moments as to not push the character into a much less obvious arena. It’s difficult to say whether that change ridding him of sympathy is due to the performance, the writing or both but it’s an issue that might have been improved if Harrison hadn’t leant so heavily on the more overt ways that he brings out Luce’s manipulative side. On the other hand, Watts gives an entirely stereotypical and almost bland performance as Amy, it fits the mould far too well and doesn’t have much to add, whereas Roth was a nice addition who adds a more open perspective to their situation and emotional maturity that plays into the story well. Though you can’t discuss this film’s performances without mentioning Blake’s incredible performance; it’s relatively brief but the amount of emotion and vulnerability that she packs into it is a real highlight.
Luce set itself up as a unique, complex psychological story with an intense mystery at its core but sadly can’t pull it off consistently. The intense atmosphere that it creates in its first half simply can’t be sustained and instead takes a number of frustrating turns which undermine its previously powerful tone. Harrison and Spencer are worthy adversaries and the battle of wills that they create is almost hypnotic but once the story’s endgame becomes clear, its intensity fades away in favour of more typical plot choices. It’s a disappointing turn of events for a film that holds an impressive amount of potential and tells the kind of story that could fill a real gap in current cinema, to result in something so unfulfilled and anti-climactic. It’s a film that’s certainly worth watching but in the end loses sight of the bigger picture.