DVDanger: One Eyed Girl
Director Nick Matthews explores cult life, Australian-style
By Richard Whittaker,
10:00AM, Sat. Dec. 12, 2015
Time flies when you're an independent filmmaker. With his debut feature One Eyed Girl arriving on DVD and Blu-ray this week, director Nick Matthews is in a bit of a whirl. He said, "I remember about six months ago, people were telling me, December 8, that's your U.S. release date."
Travis (Mark Leonard Winter), the protagonist of Matthews' film, would probably understand that sense of detachment. The winner of the Dark Matters award at Austin Film Festival 2014, the movie follows the therapist's spiraling decline after a former patient (Kate Cheel) commits suicide. Reaching rock bottom, he finds succor among what seems like a support group. Increasingly, he sees their sympathy and encouragement as cultlike behavior, and he questions the benevolence of leader Father Jay (Steve Le Marquand).
Cult films (as in films about cults) have seemed a particularly American genre. Most recently, the genre has been exemplified by Britt Marling's Sound of My Voice and Ti West's The Sacrament. It's a reflection of America's long history of deranged leaders and blind followers, but Australia has its fair share of charismatic leaders with a messiah complex. Right now, Matthews said, "There's this guy in Queensland who says he's Jesus and his girlfriend is Mary Magdalene, and everyone is chipping in and buying vast tracts of land."
So what makes both the U.S. and Australia more open than some countries to this kind of emotional manipulation? "Isolation. We have a lot of land, and we have a lot of people who have this frontier concept of starting a new world."
For Matthews, what's interesting about cults is that they are often accidental. There's a lot of good intentions, "and then people just lose control of themselves. Jim Jones started out as a progressive Socialist, and everybody at the time said, 'Get on the bus, we're going to live this amazing, progressive lifestyle.'"
In a similar way, Matthews didn't set out to make a film about Travis disappearing into the depths of Father Jay's charismatic following. He said, "I wanted to make a film that explored alternate ways of living, and alternate ways of thinking, and someone that had a great need to investigate that world and the way he was living.
He admits that Travis is, in some ways, a proxy for his own interests. "It's no coincidence that both me and my co-writer (Craig Behenna) are men who ask a lot of questions about how to live. We read a lot of Eastern philosophy, and we take an interest in psychotherapy."
During his breakdown, Travis becomes "someone who no longer believes in the status quo, someone who simply cannot continue." His trip to Jay's compound fits the narrative construct of the special place, where a character must travel to gain wisdom, and Matthews compares his journey to Dorothy's walk to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. "Once we decided what the special place was for this very lost soul, or what it was that he needed to solve, and this idea of redemption, a cult became the natural place for him to go."
The exact nature of Jay's belief system – which Matthews emphasizes is spiritual, not conventionally religious – is never explicitly stated. Instead, it's shown in glimpses, actions, and moments. However, Matthews and Behenna had a clear idea behind the scenes of exactly what was running through Jay's head, so that even his most extreme actions are logically consistent. Matthews said, "You have to have, for lack of a better term, a bible when you're working on that process. We have documents that exists that say, age 21 Jay is doing this, age 30, he's doing that."
As that biography evolved, it informed Jay's philosophy, and became part of the operations of the community and their compound. Matthews said, "When you're armed with that information, when you're dramatizing it, then the impetus was to push less onto the audience, because we were comfortable with it. What we found was that we didn't want to drag the story down with too much of Jay's teaching. This was really Travis' story."
One Eyed Girl (Dark Sky Films) is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD now.