While never really shy about expressing themes of sexuality and repression in his previous works, Canadian filmmaker Sean Garrity makes his fifth film his most subdued and cerebral. Hot on the heels of the TIFF ‘12 favourite romp My Awkward Sexual Adventure, (which sees proper release later this spring), the psychological drama of Blood Pressure might seem like a bit or a downer or a step sideways in the filmmaker’s CV, but it’s also one of his most thematically engaging, particularly with regard to his characters who are all stuck in a sort of listless suburban limbo.
Nicole (Michelle Giroux) has been struggling with life lately. Her teenage son and daughter (Jake Epstein and Tatiana Maslany) barely talk to her anymore but still rely on mommy for rides and moral support when they selfishly need it the most. Her husband (Judah Katz) is a workaholic off in his own world and he can’t seem to see that his lack of attentiveness if hurting his marriage to a potentially irreversible degree. Even her job as a pharmacist offers her no respite since her boss is an uppity go-getter and she isn’t allowed to make personal connections with her customers.
Into her life comes a mysterious and increasingly strange series of letters from a secret admirer. The letters often come with strange, opulent gifts like trips to the spa and trips to a shooting range. The letter writer knows plenty about Nicole’s life, but the connection is never openly sexual. She becomes awakened and empowered by the letters that force her to look for meaning in her life, but things at home begin to take a turn for the worse when the letters start asking her to spy on someone from a distance.
Thus begins the push and pull at the heart of Garrity’s film, which creates more of a twisty character study and mysterious interactions than a straightforward plot that conforms well to a logline. The biggest twist comes roughly just past the halfway point, which makes it a film that’s hard to talk about in terms of storytelling, but it’s quite a solid endeavour since characters these rich don’t really need a perfect throughline to make watching them come together and breaking apart interesting.
No one in the film is ever an inherently bad person, and Garrity’s depiction of a splintered family becomes the most fascinating thing to observe. Only in very brief moments does more than one person ever approach Nicole, and whenever there’s more than one body competing for her attention things grow needlessly acrimonious with everyone currying for favour over trivial details of their mundane lives. It’s easy to see why Nicole craves the personal attention that her secret admirer lavishes upon her. The very dreariness of her life (brought out quite intriguingly in the film’s production design and cinematography that doesn’t even need to bleach out the scenery to make it seem sterile) requires a sort of release – sexual or otherwise – that she hasn’t had in decades.
Garrity stages mostly one-on-one dialogues with Giroux that she handles quite wonderfully despite having a different dynamic that needs to be expressed depending on who she’s talking to at a given moment. In her scenes with Katz, she shows growing and open frustration that he can throw back at her because he’s doing such a great job being helpless and confused. Epstein makes a considerable impact with the least amount of screen time as the son who constantly feels the need to shout just to get noticed, and Maslany shines as the daughter who really does want to spend more time getting to know her mother but is getting the short end of the stick thanks to the new, unseen man in her life. Similarly, Garrity’s frequent collaborator Jonas Chernick shows up as the man Nicole has been asked to stalk, and he handles his part of the story with warmth, dignity, and confusion both towards her and his own motives.
Blood Pressure moves at a great pace, getting started with the central premise as early as possible and never looking back, but it might tip it’s hand a bit too quickly when it comes to revealing the identity of the letter writer. Thankfully, the film that Blood Pressure becomes is a different, but similarly engaging one that doesn’t betray the motivation of the characters that have already been so richly set up. Garrity has created a believable fantasy situation, but with a real ear for how such a scenario might play out with real lives and real emotions, and that’s something pretty special.