WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS!
It’s not often that I run into a film that I feel uncertain about, but that is presently the case with THE LESSON. Generally speaking, by the time the end credits roll, I’m pretty positive on whether or not I loved or hated a movie. But at the moment, I have a strong feeling of ambivalence towards Ruth Platt’s directorial debut. Perhaps I’ll come to a more concrete decision about this film as I review it, so please follow me on this journey of discovery Vault Dwellers!
THE LESSON follows Finley Tindall (Evan Bendall – henceforth known as Fin), a teenager with some major behavioral issues. Fin hangs out with two other problematic teens named Joel (Rory Coltart) and Eddie. When not causing their teachers grief at school, this troublesome trio steals from convenience stores, destroys private property for kicks, and exercises a blatant disregard for authority figures.
Then on one fateful evening, after a long day of goofing off, Fin and Joel are violently abducted by their English teacher, Mr. Gale (Robert Hands). Fed up with the lack of respect, and constant abuse he receives from his students, Gale prepare to take matters into his own hands. He straps the bloodied teens into makeshift desk in his garage, and goes about trying to teach them about the finer points of literature. Utilizing threats of torture (and eventually actual torture) as a form of negative reinforcement, Mr. Gale is hellbent on hammering information (both literally and figuratively) into their brains!
As nails are pounded into their hands while literary terms and definitions are lobbed at them, Fin and Joel try to placate the insane educator. Realizing that there’s probably zero chance of survival, they must pay attention and partake in Gale’s sick game, and either find a way to escape, or hope someone comes looking for them. Will they survive THE LESSON?!
After mulling it over for a few days, I’m still on the fence about this movie Vault Dwellers. I gave THE LESSON a chance, and really wanted to love it. But in the end, I only enjoyed portions of it, particularly Robert Hands’ performance as Mr. Gale. What’s odd is that he only briefly shares a single scene with his defiant students, who antagonize him to the point where he begins chanting a mantra of “Base, savage, and cruel.” Though he looks like he is about to snap, Gale calms down and resumes teaching class as if nothing had happened.
And this is the only scene that let’s us know that something is a bit off with this teacher, because there is no build-up to Gale’s descent into madness and torture. As far as I could tell, the students don’t taunt or threaten him outside of school, and there’s no back and forth retaliation between both parties, as was the case in Mark Lester’s CLASS OF 1984. So it is very jarring when, thirty minutes in, Mr. Gale leaps right in to kidnapping and sadism without any kind of warning.
And though I eagerly anticipated the brutal punishment the unhinged English teacher would unleash upon his victims, I had a change of heart as things progressed. Evan Bendall’s Finley, while very much a “wanker,” isn’t a lost cause, but a lost soul. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Fin most likely lost his mother at young age, due to a disease (probably cancer), and was more or less abandoned by his father. On top of that, his older sibling Jake (Tom Cox) is a total control freak that doesn’t harbor any love for his younger brother.
Once I began piecing things together, I began hoping that Fin would eventually gain the upper hand against Mr. Gale. And that finally begins to happen when Mia (Michaela Prchalová) enters the picture. Mia is Jake’s girlfriend, and is truly the only person in the film that shows any compassion or affection towards Fin. While most think she is playing “mother hen” to a lonely teen, there is definitely more going on there. In the third act of the movie, Mia searches for Fin, only to be captured by Mr. Gale, who promptly threatens to start hammering nails into her skull.
This leads to a revelation that Fin is actually incredibly smart, as he answers Gale’s difficult questions in rapid-fire succession (much to the joyous shock of his kidnapper). Coupled with a display of intellect from Mia (a former student of Gale’s), the crazed teacher realizes that he has (in his own sick way) reached these kids. But Gale’s pride quickly proves to be his downfall when Mia and Fin manage to overtake him, and get a little bloody revenge of their own.
The violence and bloodshed in THE LESSON is well done, but rather low key. It is clearly meant to be more realistic than what you would typically see in a Horror film. There are a few moments that are a little tough to watch (I actually winced a few times!), particularly because Evan Bendall and Robert Hands both really sell their moments of pain. But the violence never goes over the top, and is used purely as a storytelling device. It is never glorified, and is merely a messy means to and end.
At a hundred minutes, THE LESSON could definitely have used some tighter editing, because numerous scenes (and shots) are dragged out a tad longer than necessary. It would have also helped the film’s lethargic first half hour, which is further hampered by foisting unlikable characters upon us. Finley and his friends are detestable brats that do whatever they want, without any worries about the consequences of their actions, and you want to see them get their comeuppance. Yet oddly enough, when Mr. Gale gets to have his way with Finley and Joel, you may find yourself switching sides.
At first, I was totally in Gale’s corner, and wanted to see these kids get punished. But as things got progressively more out of hand, I switched allegiances. This is due in part to some clever audience manipulation by writer/director Ruth Platt. Taking a cue from Stanley Kubrick (who somehow made us all feel bad for the reprehensible Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE), Ruth turns you against the teenagers, then flips things around again when you realize that their captor is completely out of his mind.
And speaking of Mr. Gale, more time should have been devoted to building the character. He gets two very short scenes early on, and all we learn about him is that his mother is hospitalized (or in assisted living), and that he is super stressed at work. Later he reveals to his captives that he is fighting back against twenty or so years of mistreatment from several generations of ignorant students. But what was the tipping point? Surely something more serious than two unruly students must have pushed Gale over the edge. It almost seems like a key plot element was excised here.
THE LESSON is a competently made film with great lead actors (Robert Hands is fantastic!), but it does have some pacing issues, and several instances where the camera lingers for too long during a scene. It also could have benefited greatly from having stronger character development, as well as a leaner running time. All that being said, I cautiously recommend Ruth Platt’s feature-length film debut. It is a solid first effort, and after careful consideration, I’ve decided to give it a Geiger counter rating of:
Packaging: THE LESSON comes in a standard Blu-ray amaray case with a cardboard slipcover. Like many other Scream Factory releases, it has reversible cover art featuring the film’s original poster design.
Audio & Video: Featured in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, THE LESSON looks quite good in high-definition. This is unsurprising since it is (as of my writing this) a relatively new film, and was shot using Canon’s 5D camera. For audio options, we get both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, and everything sounds great! The disc also has removable English subtitles, which might come in handy for those of you who have trouble with British accents and slang.
Extras: Yeesh, this is a shockingly bare bones release for Scream Factory. All we get on this disc is the theatrical trailer!
Final Verdict: The audio and video presentation of THE LESSON is unsurprisingly top-notch, but the distinct lack of special features is disappointing. The absence of interviews or an audio commentary for this release definitely seems like a missed opportunity. As is stands, this is an unremarkable Blu-ray release, and isn’t worthy of more than: