VOD film review: Honeydew
Unsettling mise en scène9
Anton Bitel | On 29, Mar 2021
Director: Devereux Milburn
Cast: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Stephen D’Ambrose, Jamie Bradley, Joshua Patrick Dudley, Lena Dunham
Honeydew opens with images of a wheat field. “Honour God with your bodies,” a red-haired girl then says indoors, as she reads into a tape recorder from Corinthians 6 about the coming end days, and simultaneously devours a breakfast of meat, eggs and sauce before her. In the background, a loaf of bread bakes in the oven, and an old woman manually grinds grains into flour. Filmed in angled shots that conceal the characters’ faces, the scene is impressionistic (as are two scenes that follow immediately, one showing the old woman veiled at a funeral, the other showing a hunter drawn by noises to a barn) – but what stands out here is a focus on the Earth’s bounty of food, and the joy of eating.
Once the narrative proper begins, this theme will continue, as graduate student Rylie (Malin Barr) is doing a bit of fieldwork in the backroads of New England for her doctorate on sordico, a (fictive) fungus growing on wheat said to cause gangrene and madness in anyone who eats it. Her boyfriend Sam (Sawyer Spielberg), a tightly wound actor, is along for the ride. Rylie is vegan, and Sam is on a very strict diet that prevents him eating “any red meat, any dairy, sugar, salt”. After they are politely but firmly moved on from camping in a field by its owner, old Eulis (Stephen D’Ambrose), they then find their car’s battery dead, and walk in the dark to the only farmhouse nearby in search of a working phone to call AAA. There they are greeted by Karen (Barbara Kingsley), the old woman from the opening scene. Sweet, smiling and doddery, she invites the couple in, and insists on giving them dinner, which they eat alongside her mute, wheelchair-bound son Gunni (Jamie Bradley) whose head is covered in bandages. “Got kicked by a bull about six months ago, right in the face,” Karen explains. “Hasn’t been the same.”
For his feature debut, writer/director Devereux Milburn deploys an immense degree of craft to disorient and unsettle the viewer, ensuring that Honeydew plays out in a manner that is hilariously, alarmingly wrong. John Merhmann’s score is full of the sounds of scraping blades, which Milburn oftentimes perfectly with his jarringly abrupt edits or queasily slow swipes to split screen, suggesting more than one kind of cut. The poorly tuned televisions and radios which seem to be in every room phase in and out of coherent programming, perfectly modulating the house’s unhinged atmosphere, while Dan Kennedy’s canted angles cast everything askew, and Kendra Eaves production design makes the farmhouse a place of layered, lived-in unpleasantness and paranoia.
While Rylie is in the basement bedroom scoffing a creamy cupcake behind her boyfriend’s back, Sam is upstairs in the kitchen secretly devouring some illicit red meat. Both governed by their errant appetites, they are like Hansel and Gretel being fattened up in the old lady’s house, even as Gunni’s very name alludes to Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with its similar tale of urban co-eds drawn to an old white house in the country for a deliriously demented dinner. If the actual dinner scenes might, in all their discomfiting surrealism, recall the similar sequence form David Lynch’s Eraserhead, then Milburn elsewhere clearly has in mind the feature debut of Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer.
Viewers will know from early on that something truly terrible is unfolding, but half the fun of Honeydew rests in trying to determine precisely what is going on. “I think we’ve worked out our kinks, just about,” Karen will later say, at that awful point where we have more or less worked them out too – and from here on in, the film unravels itself in a way that is truly harrowing. For this farm, located somewhere between the significantly named Pleasant and Trouble Streets, uses an enticing veneer of plentifulness to conceal unspeakable horrors beneath. Intense, sick and disturbing, Honeydew offers a portrait of a homespun, cornfed America undone by perverse fundamentalism, and determined to eat itself. For here, these millennials are at the mercy of an older generation of monstrous maniacs – and the result is a nightmare of entrapment, gorged on the cloying richness of its own unnerving stylisation.