A first-time model, a webcam sex worker, and a power-hungry homophobe journey through their insecurities and vulnerabilities. This hedonistic and seductive short lm challenges toxic hyper-masculinity and the abuse of power through three vignettes.
Our Watchlist recommendation takes an unconventional turn this time as we review a film that is technically a feature, by way of an amalgamation of short films.
Writer/director Gage Oxley, once again pulls no punches on his immersive and intense examinations of issues affecting the LGBTQ community. Through three separate vignettes, Oxley gives us a series of stories addressing abuse of power, financial desperation and psychological self-denial.
The opening credits are a statement of intent that we are about to witness a director stepping up their game and pushing themselves (and the audience) to the limits of their comfort. One of the key visual themes is also established in the opening seconds of the film as Oxley sets up the audience to view the concept of isolation through the prism of male sexuality. Thematically and narratively, Wretched Things uses the male body not to titillate (as the visuals may suggest), but to become symbolic of vulnerability, intensely communicating male insecurity in the character journeys that follow.
Chapter One tells the story of Ben (Warren Godman), an up and coming young model, who lands a shot at appearing on the cover of the UKs biggest gay magazine. Upon meeting photographer Peter (Thomas Loone), through whom Ben’s road to success runs, the audience is told in all but words that Ben is about to become a victim of exploitation. Brilliantly, Oxley uses the fact that Ben is initially oblivious to Peter’s intentions as a tension-building method, resulting in the audience silently willing him to run. Our unease is slowly ramped up until Ben finally comes face-to-face with the truth of his situation and the choice he is forced to make.
A blend of Godman expertly selling his quiet vulnerability and Oxley’s intrusive tight framing forces the audience into an uncomfortable intimacy with a man who allows careers to thrive or die, based on what he can emotionally extort from naïve young men. Similarly, being forced into close quarters with Ben makes it impossible for us to separate himself from the violation visited on him.
Chapter One utilises visual elements like pastel colours and the bright lights of the photo studio. Oxley takes elements that should be benign or attractive, and uses them to strip any semblance of defence from Ben, turning the sexuality that should be his greatest asset into a weapon used against him. Conversely, the lights cast on Ben leave the photographer in ominous (although not overt) shadow, highlighting his predatory character.
While Godman painfully and sympathetically embodies a young man discovering evil at the heart of his dream, it is Thomas Loone who delivers the stand out performance of the chapter; perfectly embodying a character perfectly crafted to be hated, who is in turns motivating, funny and utterly chilling. Oxley also employs a visual irony as Peter exerts his dominance over someone who physically dominates him, physically having to look up to the very person that he is degrading and dehumanising.
Chapter Two picks up directly after Chapter One but shifts focus to Olly (Tommy Vilés) a down on his luck young man, who stumbles onto the world of online sex-work. This story at once manages to chart a journey of both self-empowerment and loss of agency as Olly trades the powerlessness of economic hardship for the realities of becoming an online sensation, and the de-facto property of the audiences that hail his newfound talent.
In a shift in style from the previous chapter, this vignette has a surprisingly low amount of dialogue, instead relying on an expressive and eventually heart-breaking performance from Vilés and mood-driven cinematography of Oxley and frequent collaborator, Matt Tingle.
Chapter Three very nearly crosses the line into feature film on its own, with a run time of 52 minutes. In addition, Wretched Things expands its horizons into a period piece, with the third chapter taking place in 90s England amid the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. Our deeply troubled protagonist, Louis (Adam Ayadi) is a vicious and furious young man, turning his anger and self-loathing onto the very gay men he depends on for sexual release.
Ayadi does an incredible job of carrying by far the most demanding portion of the film alongside potential lover Kyle (Bruce Herbelin-Earle) and regular BDSM submissive Joey (This World We Live In’s Jack Parr). Avadi’s Louis tragically displays the emotional consequences of refusing to accept your true self, opting instead to exert physical control over the people around him in order to hide from the reality that he has no control over being a member of a group almost universally despised in mainstream society at that time.
This is, by far the most overtly stylistic chapter of the anthology and we are treated to some truly arresting cinema in Louis’ more susceptible moments. Additionally, the scenes in which Louis engages with and simultaneously rails against his sexuality produce some powerful and unsettling moments.
Across all three chapters, moments of decision or conflict are literally depicted in the clashing colours of the lighting and we are drawn in to the epicentre of the anger, isolation, shame and the aftermath of violation of all three protagonists.
It is fair to say that this film anthology is not for everyone, however it is important to recognise that short film is one of the few platforms where marginalised groups can be fully represented and their experiences, flaws and beauty can be laid bare. Gage Oxley and the team at Oxygen Films waste not one opportunity to take advantage of this, pushing themselves artistically and logistically to reflect and share experiences too often ignored, and often delivering powerful performances and transcendent filmmaking in the process.
Without question, Wretched Things is the toughest watch of Gage Oxley’s quickly (and impressively) expanding filmography. It is also perhaps the biggest indication yet that we are seeing the emergence of a truly fearless filmmaker.
Wretched Things is a film experience that will not soon leave you and deserves to be on your watchlist.
Catch Chapter One on Amazon Prime Video now and go deeper into the making of and motivations behind this ambitious project with our latest In The Green Room podcast with Gage Oxley and Oxygen Films producer Sian Carry.