‘Cuckoo’ Review: Hunter Schafer Can’t Save a Nonsensical Horror Movie That Drives Itself Insane

Liem Soeng

‘Cuckoo’ Review: Hunter Schafer Can’t Save a Nonsensical Horror Movie That Drives Itself Insane
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What is “Cuckoo” about? What actually happens in it? How important is it for a movie to make sense? We can’t answer any of these questions. And nor can “Cuckoo,” an undoubtedly well-made and almost-interesting psychological thriller about a strange Alpine resort where — and we can’t stress this enough — it’s not clear what actually happens.

Some basic bits are, however, clear: Hunter Schafer is definitely in it, as Gretchen, a 17-year-old girl and general tortured soul forced to move in with her dad Luis (Marton Csokas), step-mom Beth (Jessica Henwick), and young step-sister Alma (Mila Lieu) after the death of her mother. Gretchen insists on having nothing to do with Alma, an arbitrarily cruel stance seemingly for the sake of a redemption arc later in the film (which, again, maybe happens?).

The premise of “Cuckoo” is that something odd involving impregnation and murder is going on at the resort, which Gretchen’s father helped build for his boss, an über-camp Bond villain whose evilness is immediately made clear via over-sharp sartorial choices and a funny insistence on over-pronouncing Gretchen’s name. And Mr. König (Dan Stevens) doesn’t just own the resort, he also lives nearby, in a villa located high up on the mountain.

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Stevens is clearly having a great time as the movie’s resident Wizard of Oz, a man who appears to control everything but the weather. It’s not at all clear what he’s actually doing — the recurring theme of the film — but his energy is enough to carry the action through its early chapters.

The expectation that things might just begin to come together will likely be enough for “Cuckoo” to hold on to some early audience goodwill; much of it will be dissipated by the time it becomes clear that, no, this movie won’t make any sense and, no, it won’t be any fun either. So far as director Tilman Singer is concerned, those qualities are features rather than bugs; his 2018 debut “Luz” was another cerebral horror film with shades of the supernatural, and its pure genre pleasures anticipated the lack of clarity or satisfaction that have found their way into his follow-up. This time around, only the biggest fans of his abstruse style need apply.

Despite all those eventual frustrations, “Cuckoo” stands on solid ground for a good 45 minutes. The scares are well crafted, and there is a general sense that they’re building toward a reveal greater than the sum of their jolts. Singer is a stylish filmmaker who frames the Alps as a kind of walled prison for Gretchen, and the environment is made all the more interesting by the vague hints that the entire resort might exist outside the boundaries of linear time.

Schafer’s performance is equally impressive for her restraint, and the “Euphoria” breakout is especially good in the quiet moments of loneliness that Singer affords Gretchen, like when she’s playing guitar with her headphones on as chaos ensues around her, or riding a bike alone at night while being chased by a demonic woman who may (or may not) be her mom. Schafer is definitely committed and eager to embrace all of the genres that she gets to play with here; as a feature-length screen test for more interesting work down the line, “Cuckoo” has to be considered some kind of success.

But while great sacrifices must sometimes be made for art, no one should have to suffer through what “Cuckoo” has in store in its second half. Whatever secrets Mr. König is hiding are nebulous, overwrought and — worse still — seeking some vague profundity. There’s a spiel about how what happens at the resort mirrors the cuckoo’s savage behavior toward its offspring (cuckoos, like some other birds, participate in “brood parasitism,” in which they drop off their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving them to be raised by their unwitting foster families), but it’s all so poorly explained that it adds little to the experience.

Yet the biggest crime of “Cuckoo” is that it won’t lean into being a B-movie, something it might’ve been good at. The performances — especially Stevens’ — are silly and sincere, and the action competent enough for “Cuckoo” to have worked as pure pulp. But this film takes itself too seriously and pokes fun at its own silliness, a fatal combination.

Consider the worst line of the film: Gretchen announces to the room how insane Mr. König sounds (a kind of, “Wait, did everyone else just hear that?” moment), a bit of meta-awareness that instantly derails the self-serious tone of the film. And yet, the film instantly swing back to full sincerity again, and right into a very long final action sequence that (oddly) resembles Dwight, Michael, and Andy’s faux-Mexican stand-off in “The Office.”

It’s easier to laugh at — as most of the audience at the film’s first Berlin screening did — than it is to enjoy. That’s more than we can say for poor Gretchen, who is eventually left helpless and ignored, feeling that nothing around her is making any sense. That part, audiences will understand.

Grade: C-

“Cuckoo” premiered at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival. NEON will release it in theaters on Friday, May 4.

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