Though visually appealing and grounded in a compelling mix of drama and horror, Eli (2019) wastes its opportunities on an awfully chaotic script and going-nowhere direction. Consequently, Ciarán Foy’s Eli (2019) joins the production league of Netflix Originals, where a good concept goes south.
Times when splashing brains and crushing limbs were considered a good horror movie are almost over. And with splashers gone with the wind, it’s now the time for a new era – psychological films that rely on the sense of dread rather than showing violence and carnage. Eli (2019), directed by Ciarán Foy, whose so-far-so-mediocre filmography includes the likes of Sinister 2 (2015) and The Citadel (2012), proudly joins this circle of other Netflix Originals B-league – Anon (2018), Mute (2018), Tau (2018), The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) and more.
Foy finds a family of two who cares for their sick son, Eli (Charlie Shotwell). As the story quickly reveals, the boy suffers from a rare disease that deals him tremendous pain whenever he is exposed to the external world. Apparently, the only way to keep him safe is for the boy to live in a hermetic, sterile bubble. Upon leaving the dome, a protective suit is a must – a view taken straight from sci-fi movies. Needless to say, the extra precautions aren’t light on the wallet, but Eli’s loving parents, Rose and Paul – played by Kelly Reilly and Max Martini – are set to ease the suffering.
Since, as one may imagine, living in a flat with a giant plexiglass dome occupying the entire living room isn’t the go-to choice for anyone, Rose and Paul place Eli under the vigilant eye of doctor Horn (Lili Taylor) – an expert in the field. Horn’s a rather shifty character, as indicated by Eli multiple times, yet the parents maintain that she’s their last resort. Arguably, the twist that reveals Horn’s true motives is a meticulous piece of writing that marks a high point for Eli (2019). Lili Taylor’s also responsible for the effect, as her deceitful behavior emphasizes the alienation and unease of Eli.
But even more strange than the doctor herself is the place where her clinic operates. The old mansion screams, “this shit’s haunted!” which makes it hard to buy into its pristine cleanliness and sterility – an absolute necessity for Eli to function. In fact, Foy and his writer hint at some apparitions and ghost sightings, bringing another layer to the horror part of the movie.
Since everyone seems convinced about doctor Horn’s treatment effectiveness, poor Eli is forced to undergo three stages. Each consecutive one gets grimmer and more twisted; alas, Foy struggles to understand the full potential of the source material – Eli (2019) sees director Ciáran Foy grasping at straws.
There was an eagerly harrowing film on a plate, perhaps one that could combine the thrills of a horror film with a bone-deep drama movie, like The Ritual (2017) did. The story that came into existence as a joint effort of David Chirchirillo, Ian Goldberg, and Richard Naing, persistently mixes the familial struggle with doctor Horn’s maddening methods. So, on the one hand, Eli (2019) portrays the excruciating pain of making the tough call – should the couple expose their own blood to painful and tedious treatment, entrusting in an experimental treatment?
Both Kelly Reilly and Max Martini play these notes in hopes of building a versatile connection with young Charlie Shotwell so that the trio can swiftly adapt to whatever the writers throw under their feet. Yet there’s a false note there, too, specifically in how the parents express moderate interest in whatever’s going on behind the doors of surgery rooms inside the giant mansion. While the writers eventually explain Reilly and Martini’s coldness, the finale is just frustrating – at least in that field.
Nonetheless, things become far more gut-wrenching in the horrid finale of Eli (2019), which provides a visually spectacular pay-off. Even at that fleeting moment of bliss, Foy has little idea about navigating the avalanche of information that the plot serves at once. Out of the blue, Eli (2019) adds just another theme to its horror canvas and manages to leave a long-lasting impression of what the hell did I watch? Undoubtedly, this is a tough nut to crack, but not one that’s entirely earned by the creators, either.
Despite lacking coherence, Eli (2019) should still appeal to thrill-seekers, as it serves some nasty bits of body horror and a hellish spectacle to conclude. Although his previous works won’t precisely back that notion up, Foy has a good feeling of camera and lighting and what role these two factors play in creating suspense. There are enough tiny nooks in that gigantic mansion to shelter more than one haunt – a pattern that another Netflix Original, Malevolent (2018), had incorporated quite well.
Though the script is ultimately confusing and galling, Eli (2019) has enough steam to pass as a better-than-average horror flick. Just don’t go expecting too many sparks.