Synopsis: A businessman wakes up beside an ancient grist mill in the center of an open-air prison cell without knowing how he got there. Forced to work as a beast of burden to stay alive, he must find a way to escape before the birth of his child.
Stars: Lil Rel Howery, Pat Healy, Karen Obilom
Director: Sean King O’Grady
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: Every October, streaming service Hulu programs a month of spooky offerings for viewers under their Huluween banner. In addition to the usual array of Halloween movies and episodes of popular television series, there are always a handful of original series and films released that have either been commissioned specifically for the Huluween stretch or purchased to broadcast during scary movie season. While the effort is admirable and, like previous Bite-Sized Halloween shorts, gone above and beyond to find the right mix of frights, most films haven’t landed in any significant way.
Last year, Matriarch and Grimcutty were films that had been expanded from successful shorts seen in the Bite-Sized Halloween bracket, as was Appendage, which came to Hulu on October 2. All three films struggled to fill out a full ninety minutes of story and scares, indicating that whatever formula was used to determine what to greenlight wasn’t producing great results. The second movie to be rolled out this season is The Mill, a thriller that rides on the edge of sci-fi starring Lil Rel Howery and directed by Sean King O’Grady (We Need to Do Something). Not starting life as a short, this original screenplay by Jeffrey David Thomas offers comedian Howery the rare opportunity to show his dramatic side…but a little humor might have helped The Mill not grind to a standstill so often.
The digitized voice that speaks for Mallard, a vague tech corporation in the not-so-far-off future, welcomes us to the film, promising an enlightening experience. We then join Joe Stevens (Howery, Deep Water) as he wakes up in his triangular, high-walled, open-air empty cell save for a huge stone grist mill in the center. As he gains his bearings, a man’s voice comes through a ventilation shaft near the floor, trying to help him acclimate before his ‘workday’ begins. The computer voice pops on soon after, filling in the rest of the blanks and revealing that Joe’s recent gradual lack of company devotion has landed him in his current prison. To prove his allegiance to his work and colleagues, he must work the mill, making a set number of rotations daily or suffer dire consequences.
With a pregnant wife at home due any day, Joe is not apt to resist this bizarre sentence for long and soon is meeting his daily quota and then some. Hard work and meeting goals are rewarded but with the expectation of increased output within the same amount of time. Continued conversations with the voice next door and learning that many others are also working their mills tell Joe that he must either press on and be a team player or find a way out of his hellscape once and for all.
While the script for The Mill explores intriguing themes about the often too-demanding corporate work environment today, it comes to life through such on-the-nose maneuvers that, ultimately, the message gets lost in its tangled metaphors. Worse, it rarely makes a case for its 105-minute run time. Quite a few tangents exist for padding, including a prolonged finale, which could have been trimmed up to be half as long as it is. By the time we get to the movie’s last line, any energy some late-breaking twists have given the film has dissipated.
I’d like to see Hulu rethink these original films into a Black Mirror-esque anthology series, like what they had with Into the Dark a few years back. If The Mill had been trimmed down to 55 minutes, extracting the mediocre dramatics (that don’t serve Howery well anyway) and focusing on the bullseye final shake-up, it would have emerged as a potent strike down of corporate expectations of the blue-collar worker. In its current form, The Mill lingers too long and misses out on multiple opportunities to put our beleaguered worker on a fast track to resolution.