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SXSW Review: “The Spine of Night” Offers a Fantastical Vision to Celebrate

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 21st, 2021

Film poster: “The Spine of Night”

The Spine of Night (Philip Gelatt/Morgan Galen King, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

Filled with visceral images of blood, gore and nudity, the animated feature The Spine of Night is hardly family-friendly fare. But it is a highly imaginative work of fantastical fiction, beautifully rendered and artfully composed. With an impressive cast of voice talent that includes Betty Gabriel (Unfriended: Dark Web), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Lucy Lawless (The Changeover), Joe Manganiello (The Sleepover) and Patton Oswalt (Nature Calls), it offers a rousing new mythology of humanity’s worst inclinations and the efforts to rise above them. Though some of the dialogue may test one’s patience as it descends into overwrought exposition, the net result is still well worth watching, both engaging and original.

As the film begins, the “swamp witch” Tzod (Lawless) makes her way up a snowy mountain, naked except for bones she wears as talismans. She approaches a giant skull towards the peak, there accosted by an ancient guardian (Grant) on alert inside its mouth. The treasure over which he so assiduously stands watch is a blue flower, or “bloom,” that gives off a light glow. This special plant can imbue the bearer with unimaginable power, as long as s/he knows the right incantations to invoke. As Tzod soon explains, however, the bloom long ago sent its seeds spiraling into the world below, leading humans towards destinies both high and low.

Still from THE SPINE OF NIGHT (Photo Credit: Gorgonaut Pictures/Yellow Veil Pictures)

The bulk of the story, until the final chapter, takes place as a flashback, Tzod sharing the details of her own life and the guardian occasionally telling his story, too. As we learn, Tzod has history with the bloom, and is in fact indirectly responsibility for bringing it to the scholar Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith), who thereafter has used it to make himself a god-like figure, conquering territory and laying waste to those who oppose him. It is clear he must be stopped, though unclear how mere mortals might succeed in doing so.

What is clear is that the bloom, like Adam and Eve’s apple, offers knowledge at a cost. Part of that price is the realization that humans are but specks in the universe, the “spine of night” of the galaxies seen across the sky dwarfing our existence on Earth. In the face of that realization, should we not therefore aspire to more? But what if only one being can hold all control in his or her hand? What then? Indeed, the movie wrestles with the metaphysics of original sin, even if in a new context.

Phae (Betty Gabriel) in THE SPINE OF NIGHT (Photo Credit: Gorgonaut Pictures/Yellow Veil Pictures)

The images are striking, the plot wild. With twists and turns to defy all expectations, the film’s strength lies in the scale of its vision. Sometimes, though, the world-building makes little sense, such as when air ships coexist with an otherwise medieval setting. Still, the charm of the experience is in letting directors Philip Gelatt (They Remain) and Morgan Galen King (the short film Exordium) take you exactly where they intend the journey to go. Enjoy every step of it or not (and I loved quite a few), it is uniquely its own thing, each frame to be celebrated for the magic therein.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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