Sunday 1 March 2020

Movie Review: Case 39 (2009)

A suspense and horror film, Case 39 offers predictable evil child elements but in chillingly effective packaging.

In Portland, Oregon (but filmed in an undisguised Vancouver, British Columbia), Emily (Renée Zellweger) is a social services child support worker with a high case load. She has no family of her own, but is friends with psychologist Doug (Bradley Cooper). Emily's boss Wayne (Adrian Lester) assigns her the case of Lily (Jodelle Ferland), a young girl demonstrating signs of a stressed household. Emily investigates and finds Lily's parents Edward (Callum Keith Rennie) and Margaret (Kerry O'Malley) weird and evasive, but the child in no apparent danger.

Emily nevertheless perceives a potential risk and seeks help from detective Mike Barron (Ian McShane). Together they are forced to intervene when Lily's safety is suddenly jeopardized. Separated from her parents and about to be placed in a group home, Lily makes an appeal to temporarily live with Emily. Initially reluctant, Emily eventually agrees, unwittingly exposing herself to horrors to come.

A surprisingly good and spooky slow-burning horror film completed in 2006 but released in 2009, Case 39 carries stirring low-key echoes from The Omen. With building momentum and some effective possession-based scares, director Christian Alvart and writer Ray Wright freshen up horror fundamentals, finding room for insidious evil to worm its way into Emily's already overextended life.

Emily is caught between an adult's natural instinct to help and self-preservation, with Lily gradually exposing her ability to override the agenda. The underlying themes are familiar but still cleverly conveyed. Fear breeds incapacity, the worst anxieties can either be confronted or allowed to fester, evil takes root when invited into inner sanctums, and the radical disruption caused by the well-intentioned arrival of children are among the narrative threads weaving through Case 39.

The film's clout resides with Jodelle Ferland's fine performance and some cunning writing. Wright leaves enough room to debate how much control Lily has over the menace residing within, and Ferland does the rest with an unsettling performance filled with winning contradictions.

Renée Zellweger delivers wistful regret as a caring woman with her own set of emotional scars wondering about her life's trajectory, while Ian McShane, Callum Keith Rennie and a pre-stardom Bradley Cooper add depth to the cast.

Featuring no shortage of gruesome acts, mental disintegration and waking nightmares, the Case 39 file promises potent threats, and delivers.

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