Sebastián Silva bowed two films at 2013’s Sundance Film Festival. Crystal Fairy garnered the critical backing to get picked up by IFC Films for theater distribution. It was the first film screened and also a film of happenstance – Crystal Fairy, shot on a shoestring budget, was completed while waiting on funding for Silva’s next film. The money came and Magic Magic was set. Screened several days into the festival, Magic Magic didn’t garner the same adoration that was afforded to its predecessor and followed a hasty direct-to-DVD release. An unfortunate example of a main course overshadowed by its appetizer, Magic Magic offers more than most any major studio theatrical release, amounting to one of the most chilling and memorable horror films of the year.
More narrative-based than Crystal Fairy, Silva proves to be adept with working in the English language. The Chilean director, who marked his territory with the comically dark The Maid, relishes in the ability to mount dread through real-life ordeals. Alicia (Juno Temple) comes to Santiago to visit her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning). Almost immediately following a flight from California, Alicia discovers that she’ll join Sarah and her friends on a roadtrip to a remote cabin along the Chilean oceanfront. The two share a clear kinship that borders on incestuous, only to see it severed when Sarah must return to Santiago. Alicia, now without a familial tie and left to share a household with strangers, finds herself growing increasingly despondent. In what could’ve been a dour example of cabin fever ends up being something more lucid and dreamlike as Silva and Temple tinker with the various moving parts, perpetually amplifying a state of unease between the film’s characters and the audience.
Thematically, Silva is delving in familiar territory, with Magic Magic feeling like a narratively-driven extension of Crystal Fairy. In Crystal Fairy, a central sense of conflict comes from Michael Cera’s character fending off criticism as an outsider – an American in Chile. Yet the appealing aspect of it all was Cera’s ambivalence and sense of white privilege. Magic Magic is more self-aware, focused on atmosphere to inspire the dread that comes with wandering an unknown land. Temple’s character is one of anxieties and emotionally attuned to those around her. The subsequent degradation of her mental state is the sort of behavior that would have been mimed by Cera’s character in Crystal Fairy as a means of seeking attention. In Magic Magic, Temple's behavior is the result of a mental duress and the glowering stare of death that spans the land.
Silva utilizes the Chilean oceanfront as a means of responding to the Americanization of the Chile. As the largely white cast leaves Santiago, one sees them moving through a freeway that one would have never thought to be Chilean. It’s when the richness of the land and territory (shot beautifully by Christopher Doyle) enters the equations does the film emote a feverish pitch of ambiguity. The post signs of death are seen throughout Magic Magic, from the group encountering abandoned puppies along their travels to the group’s hunting excursion (it’s no small coincidence that the Chilean misses his shot; the American does not). It all builds to a climax that, while opaque, acknowledges the deep-rooted cultural ties of the film’s narrative.
Crystal Fairy has the sunlit veneer that makes it understandable why it was picked up for distribution. Plus it’s damn funny. But Magic Magic, while thematically similar, is operating on a whole other level. It’s a film drenched in a cultural milieu, with Silva melding Americanisms with his own background. There are genuine concerns and horrors here that inspire a sincere dread. And it’s not just seen through Juno Temple’s Repulsion-esque performance, but rather canvassed on the vast Chilean terrain.