Directed by Michael O’Shea. Starring Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine, Jelly Bean, Larry Fessenden, Andrea Cordaro. (2017, NR, 97 min.)
REVIEWED By Michael Agresta, Fri., April 28, 2017
It’s easy to tell what kind of vampire movie The Transfiguration wants to be, because its antihero, Milo (Ruffin), comes out and tells us: He likes Let the Right One In and Nosferatu, not True Blood and certainly not Twilight. First-time director Michael O’Shea, like his bloodthirsty cinephile protagonist, tempers his killer instinct with moody introspection.
As a metaphorical depiction of budding psychopathy, The Transfiguration is a compelling accomplishment. Milo is a loner growing up in the projects with no parents and a distant veteran brother. He watches web videos of animals eating and being eaten, trying to make sense of his own dark urges. When a pretty fellow outcast (Levine) crosses the threshold of his social isolation, we find ourselves caught in a familiar tension of the genre, between fearing for her safety and waiting eagerly for Milo’s evil to blossom.
The old bloodsucking variation on will-they-or-won’t-they is complicated in O’Shea’s telling by the likelihood that Milo is not a helpless prisoner of fairy-tale monstrosity. Instead, we come to suspect, he’s an ordinary mortal who’s been inspired, both by personal trauma and gory movies, to emulate his vampire-flick heroes and go out and hunt by night, without the help of razor teeth or shape-shifting. Still, his nights of hunting end in real blood, and the weight of those murders is just as constricting as any supernatural curse.
Unfortunately, what’s compelling as a character study becomes problematic when considered through the lens of racial politics. Milo’s hunting adventures are clearly echoed in the unrealistic behavior of the street gang that terrorizes his block, at one point stomping and eventually shooting a white interloper for sport. It’s impossible not to think of thankfully bygone buzzwords like “superpredator” once aimed at alienated black teenagers like Milo. The Transfiguration’s conflation of storybook monsters with black crime in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods – a beautifully shot Rockaway Beach – might have yielded deft social commentary in the hands of another storyteller, and it’s worth wondering what, say, Jordan Peele might have done with the concept. This version, devoid of irony, seems content to traffic in stale nightmares of urban life.
Yes, Milo’s character grows on us, and he becomes much more than a monster. But the film’s metaphorical language summons another sort of monstrosity that it never entirely unpacks.
A version of this review ran previously online as part of our 2017 SXSW coverage.