The Poppies of Terra #9 - Weaving Secrets
By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
One night, eight-year-old Peter (Woody Norman) hears a knock coming from inside his bedroom wall.
Is the sound the product of what his mother Carol (Lizzy Caplan) describes as Peter’s overactive imagination, or is it real? Is it supernatural in origin, or does it have a less fantastical–if no less disturbing–explanation? Is it an invitation to danger, or a beckoning to knowledge?
Part of Cobweb’s artistry is in weaving a fairy-tale-like narrative of secrets that understands the need for answers but resists the temptation of having to make them literal. Following along on Peter’s journey is a dark joy that I don’t want to blanch out with a detailed discussion of the film’s ending, so I’m going to scurry around major revelations.
The film’s premise evokes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1891). Though Peter is not exactly trapped in his room, we soon learn that he is confined in other ways. His mother is more desperately smothering than reassuring, and his father Mark (Antony Starr) is a study in folksy menace.
It’s not only Peter’s parents who seem to be perversely playing the role of guardians and protectors rather than genuinely offering nurturance. Peter’s school, though inviting in appearance, is a spawning ground for bullying. In a way, Cobweb is about the failure of ordinary power structures to protect us. The world is a facade, hiding rot; no coincidence that the pumpkins growing outside Peter’s house are going bad.
There might be hope in the cracks. Peter’s substitute teacher Miss Devine (Cleopatra Coleman) becomes as preoccupied with Peter’s signs of distress as Peter himself becomes caught up by the disturbances emanating from his wall.
As the movie’s beautifully lensed shadows and gloomy recesses stretch on, viewers may reasonably wonder whether we’re dealing with a riff on the “Madwoman in the Attic” scenario. If Cobweb’s partially gothic ambiance makes you think of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), a number of stories by H. P. Lovecraft, or in film terms, more recent offerings like Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991), William Brent Bell’s The Boy (2016), and the mainstream torchbearer for this dusky trope, Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture winner Parasite (2019), I can’t blame you. Certainly, there are elements of this tradition at play here–but making our point-of-view protagonist a young child adds an interesting flavor. Does Peter’s youth make him a more unreliable narrator, or a less pre-conditioned observer?
That a young person, developing not only an understanding of the world, but the very cognitive faculties needed to process this knowledge, might be gaslight by figures of authority is an unnerving prospect. Aneesh Chaganty’s Run (2020) similarly tapped into this paranoid hinterland of estrangement. In a way, this is a powerful metaphor for the travails of psychological individuation that we all ultimately face.
Cobweb’s plot flits and quivers in fun and surprising ways, but ultimately it’s the execution that entrances. Norman is a credible and relatable lead, sensitive but not stymied into inaction by his fears. Caplan, who delivered a scorcher of a performance in the second season of Castle Rock (2018-2019), is likewise here mesmerizing, this time for the disquieting air of rehearsed-ness to her every response. She is perfectly cast, distressingly playing on our expectations of a mother’s tenderness and spontaneity by replacing them with calculated performativity. Starr, also magnetic, is a powder keg of frustration and suppressed rage, the noble patriarch as decadent authoritarian. Samuel Bodin’s directing is involving and measured, with the occasional flourish of movement in the third act. Additional praise is deserved by cinematographer Philip Lozano and composing outfit Drum & Lace.
“Peter,” his father says, “sometimes you have to make hard decisions to protect your family.” Forget, for a moment, whatever may be lurking within the walls. Consider, instead, the broader world trying to entrap Peter, a world that has weaponized the very concept of “family,” transforming it into a system of oppression from which he must seek external protection. That’s the real nightmare.