'The Blazing World' Review: Not Even Spontaneous Udo Kier Appearances Can Save This Over-Stylized Oddity [Sundance 2021]

You would think any movie that casts the iconic Udo Kier as an enigmatic dream guide who munches on fireflies would at least be interesting, but no – The Blazing World, an over-stylized, under-baked bit of tomfoolery from writer-director-star Carlson Young never manages to engross the viewer even as it continues to throw out fantastical scenarios left and right. It's a draining mishmash of Intro to Psych lectures mixed with dream journal excerpts swirled together with some not-so-subtle Pan's Labyrinth rip-offs. It's no doubt a film made with the best intentions, but that doesn't make it any less of a chore to sit through.

When Margaret (Carlson Young) was a child she watched her sister Lizzie drown in the family pool. The drowning occurred while Margaret and Lizzie's parents (Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw, doing the best they can with what they're given here) were in the midst of a terrible fight, and the entire experience has understandably scarred Margaret for life. Her dreams are continually haunted by memories of that day – and those memories include strange imagery, like a bird that continues to crash into a window over and over again. And then there's the mysterious black wormhole that appears just slightly above the ground, and with it, a weird man (Udo Kier) beckoning for Margaret to follow him into that yawning darkness.

Depressed and lonely, Margaret drifts through life, a lost soul. When her parents – who are still together despite their clear disdain for one another – announce they're selling the family home, Margaret returns. The reunion is instantly strained – Margaret's parents are clearly just as much of a mess as she is, and none of them know how to behave around each other.

These early set-up moments are jarring to the extreme, with an abundance of quick cuts – two characters can't have a conversation without the shot frantically jumping between their faces. It's the beginning of several over-stylized touches that ultimately sink The Blazing World, along with an intrusive, annoying soundtrack that announces every single emotion we need to feel. A scary scene? Why, here's the ear-splitting sound of violin strings being scraped! A moment that's meant to be poignant? Here's something soft and twinkly to work those tear ducts. Movies are manipulative by nature – that's nothing new. But The Blazing World's attempt to manipulate its audience via these tricks is often downright offensive.

After a night out with some old friends, Margaret is thrust into a dream world full of some admittedly strong set and production design. This dream landscape – which features ruined structures jutting from sandy deserts, and nightmarish recreations of locations from Margaret's own home – is well constructed, but we can't really appreciate any of it, because the script is hampered by on-the-nose psychological analysis that feels like the type of stuff a college student majoring in philosophy (with a minor in psychology or art history) might ramble on about after getting stoned on cheap, bad dope.

Occasionally, Udo Kier's dream man will pop-up to say things like, "I am the darkest tree in the forest of light!" And it's supposed to be oh-so-spooky and mysterious but it's mostly just boring. Young keeps finding excuses to bring Kier into scenes, and that's understandable – his presence lends a certain gonzo gravitas to the whole endeavor. But by the time Young and company were recreating the terrifying "Pale Man" sequence from Pan's Labyrinth with Kier taking the Pale Man's place, I was ready to turn this off and just re-watch Guillermo del Toro's movie instead.

Young does her best to carry this all on her shoulders, and while she nails her early scenes playing up Margaret's instability, she eventually gets lost among all the scenery and abundant production design. Never quite as surreal as it needs to be, The Blazing World is an exercise in dream logic that stumbles over itself again and again. Time to wake up.

/Film rating: 3 out of 10