Mantis (2005) – By David Stephenson

It’s at times like these that I’m reminded why the world of independent cinema is so important, so vital to the continued evolution of film and the expression of ideas through this unique medium. Unlike Hollywood which has tendencies to shy away from hot-button or controversial issues in favour of wider acceptance and public acclaim, the world of indie film can always be depended upon to refresh the status quo with vital storytelling and often breathtaking honesty.

Think back over the last ten or fifteen years to the films that have stunned audiences and shocked moviegoers the most – experienced film fans will always throw in names like Trainspotting or City Of God, or perhaps Asian masterpieces like Ichi The Killer or Sonatine. Regardless of origin, these films have always amazed us with a mix of visual flair and a willingness to push the envelope in terms of what in socially acceptable in the world of film.

Added to this momentous list is a new short piece from Canada called Mantis, a bitter tale about spousal abuse, emotional deprivation and blackmail, and the unwillingness of a short-sighted and out-dated system to offer any support to the victims involved. At first glance one could be forgiven for brushing this over as just another tired old made-for-TV-movie, possibly starring a washed up old has-been like Wings Hauser, probably giving us an ‘important’ message about life, relationships, family, or whatever inane bullshit is the topic of the week. That’s what I expected anyway, as this relatively unspectacular-sounding movie dropped through my letterbox.

I was wrong. Very wrong. Unlike many ham-handed attempts by other filmmakers to investigate this emotional and often difficult topic, director Brendon Foster-Algoo turns the tables, telling the story from the point of view of the male, suffering under the rages of an emotionally unstable and violent wife, trying desperately to protect his children from possible abuse, while trying desperately (and often unsuccessfully) to shield himself from the constant stream of emotional battery he undergoes. This is obviously a very tricky and fragile subject matter to pull of, but one which Mantis delivers in spades.

Told through a series of flashbacks, voiceovers and other narrative, Mantis tells the story of our inside man Adam Merritt. A seemingly normal, blue-collar guy who would by no means ever stand out in a crowd, would never be anything other than your ordinary Joe. People are fast becoming curious about Adam however. Maybe it’s his erratic behaviour, his increasing despondency, his lateness into work… or perhaps the fresh bruises and cuts that adorn his pale face with each passing day.

Unlike the plethora of support you’d expect a female to receive in this situation, however, Adam is left isolated, weakened and humiliated by colleagues who belittle his supposed “bar fights” and mock him whenever they see him. His children look upon him with sympathy and pity as he becomes more and more helpless, as the three of them are locked into a cycle of violence and fear over which they have little or no control. Then there’s the so-called ‘support centres’ which deny Adam the support he so direly needs, solely based upon his gender.

Some rather interesting / disturbing facts thrown up at the end of this feature, to illustrate my point:

“According to Statistics Canada, men (51%) are less likely to report they are victims of spousal abuse than women (75%). Despite the reluctance to report, from 1999 to 2004 there were 653,000 reports by women and 546,000 by men. Most shelters (90%) had policies that barred adult males from their facility. Between April 1 2003 and March 31 2004 only 50 males were admitted to available shelters.”

While this could have been an overly sugar-coated or preachy film, Mantis delivers its point of view with grace and heightened poignancy, trapping the viewer into the emotional standpoint of our central character, forcing us to put ourselves into his situation, making us wonder exactly how we’d react were we to be put into such a position. The sheer strength of the narrative, the story and the style in which this piece unfolds are exemplary. The gritty realism and ho-holds-barred approach grant this film an undeniable urgency and a real emotional standpoint from which to hook in its lucky viewers.

The central performances from our two main characters Adam (played by Todd Dulmage) and Alice (played by Rebekah Boisvert) are both excellent, providing a gripping centerpiece around which the film so easily builds. Boisvert is ferocious as the emotionally unstable, violent wife who’s vicious temper and lack of self-control make her dangerous not only to her husband Adam, but to the children and to anyone around her. While shocking and maybe even terrifying in her fits and rages, she brings an un-nerving flipside, being caring, warm and loving (and over-apologetic) the next. For a second we can almost see Adam’s reluctance to leave, as he seems to truly believe this will really be the last time, that things will really be better from now on. It’s a naivety which makes you want to scream at your screens, but one with which you can totally emphasize with and understand. This is because of Dulmage’s strong and competent performance as an emotionally weakened man pushed to the edges of his limitation and beyond; a man who’s life is literally spiraling out of control around him.

Expertly written, eye-catching and difficult to forget, Mantis is a film which will grab viewers by their hearts and minds. A film which demands (and deserves) attention, providing a compelling emotional argument and a case against the current Canadian support system, intelligently highlighting the bitter struggle silently faced by many adult males.

In short: essential cinema, truly worthy of the many official festival selections it has received.

If you’d like to find out more about this film, you can check out the Neutral Density Films website at http://www.neutraldensityfilms.com.