Written by: Matt Patti | October 8th, 2020
The World Is Full of Secrets (Graham Swon, 2018) 1 out of 4 stars.
With cinema getting older and older and original ideas ever harder to come by in recent days, many filmmakers are on a mission to do something different. It seems like these filmmakers are constantly trying to one-up each other and are trying to give audiences an experience that they haven’t had before. There are some films, even if the plot is familiar, that are presented in a way that is different than what audiences are used to. Take Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, for example, a film which enables viewers to choose the plot by making choices for the characters. The story is not very noteworthy, but the experience makes it worth watching. On the other side of the spectrum is director Graham Swon’s The World Is Full of Secrets, a film that, like others before it, tries to stand out from the rest and tell its narrative in an unconventional way. However, Swon’s ambition backfires, and an otherwise intriguing plot is undermined by his bland, lackluster presentation of the story.
The film is told via narration from an older woman recounting her experience of a sleepover she had with her friends when she was a child. Transporting us back to the past, we see that this group of friends has a strange obsession with frightening stories. One night, unsupervised, the girls take turns telling long, detailed scary stories to each other and partaking in typical scary games and challenges in between. But this fun, seemingly harmless night soon becomes a prelude to an unspeakable horror.
The World Is Full of Secrets features the scary stories that the girls tell through long, uncut takes. While the long takes are impressive, and the young actresses make good storytellers, these sequences are far too long and uninspiring. The actresses literally look at the camera, and sometimes around it (perhaps reading their lines from a sign?) to tell the stories without any cutaways to any other footage whatsoever. Worse, they sometimes mess up when telling the story, stumble on words, or seem to lose their train of thought. Whether that is an intentional choice to make the film seem more realistic, I am not sure. However, I find it quite distracting. So, in essence, two-thirds of this film is watching young girls speak directly to the camera, one at a time, telling a scary story. Some b-roll or cutaways, even if minimal, would certainly help to spice up these stories, but the filmmakers decide not to include any at all.
While the storytelling is certainly my largest issue with the film, the issues don’t end there. The film is shown in an odd square aspect ratio (1.2:1) that is very distracting. It also doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. There are two long scary stories told, each taking about 15-30 minutes each, a few articles the girls read, and then obvious filler in between of random scary games that the girls have heard of. Neither the stories, nor the articles, nor the scary challenges are compelling, as I’ve heard much scarier and more interesting scary stories on YouTube. Finally, the “unspeakable horror” that the old narrator keeps referring to is very vague and difficult to understand throughout the film. Referenced much throughout, it builds to a disappointing finish.
Overall, what could be an interesting slice-of-life film with illustrated, spooky tales and real fright is reduced to a film that leaves the viewer feeling empty. It is bereft of what I love about films – visual storytelling – and the cinematic magic is lost in a piece of work that does not even require the viewer to have their eyes open. In fact, the film might be better with one’s eyes closed, as there is nothing really to see and the imagination can run more wild. In all seriousness, I understand what the filmmakers are going for: sensory storytelling in which the viewer, through vivid details, can create images in their head with their imagination rather than seeing them on screen. But there is another form of storytelling that is perfect for that and has been around much longer than films: books. Even though many films have thrived on telling stories in clever new ways, director Swon’s decisions on how to present the story in this film leads to its demise.