Synopsis: A fashion designer suffers from a mysterious illness that confounds her doctors and frustrates her husband – until help arrives in the form of a Filipino nanny who uses traditional folk healing to reveal a horrifying truth.
Stars: Eva Green, Mark Strong, Chai Fonacier, Billie Gadsdon
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: A lament I’ve plunked out here quite often is the downfall of the mid-range thrillers that were so easy to churn out in the late ‘80s through the mid-2000s. Produced on a modest budget with dependable actors, these were popcorn-chomping date night fare that was good for a weekend or two in theaters before heating up the video store shelves months later. With the advent of streaming services and more franchise-based entertainment, these one-shot efforts were pushed to the side when studios focused all their time and money on making their blockbusters break the bank. It’s a bummer because we’ve seen in recent years filmmakers and screenwriters that know their damsel in distress from their woman fights back scenario and their nightmare stalkers from their killer nannies.
The new Irish-Filipino psychological thriller Nocebo is just that kind of easy-to-digest thriller that you can imagine would play as well in 1997, starring Kim Basinger as it does in 2022 with Eva Green (Cracks) in the lead. Directed by Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium) from a script by Garret Shanley, it’s solid entertainment that may have shocks up its sleeve but has more on its mind than cheap tricks and sordid plot details. Nocebo has a rather intriguing thread to follow along with, and it rewards those who stick close and will keep its secrets until the end.
Children’s fashion designer Christine (Green) has a good thing going with a busy life in Ireland. Her home is desirable, her husband Felix (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) is successful in his own business, and her daughter Roberta “Bobs” (Billie Gadson, Cruella) is at that pre-adolescent phase where she’s coming into her own. On the eve of her latest launch at a tony shopping center, a mysterious phone call brings terrible news that we won’t know the full details until later. At the same time, a ghostly mutt appears riddled with ticks in the pristine shop, and one winds up burrowing into Christine’s neck. It’s the start of months of debilitating sickness and night terrors for Christine, leaving her incapacitated and unable to work.
When she does decide to muster all her strength and rise above the illness her doctors can’t pinpoint, she finds that she still doesn’t yet have the stamina. A knock on the door reveals Diana (Chai Fonacier), sent from the agency at Christine’s request (she can’t remember calling, but…her memory has been spotty), who quickly takes control of the household and Christine’s well-being. Tossing out the mountain of medications prescribed by her doctors in favor of remedies she’s brought from her homeland, Diana can help Christine into health. Her husband isn’t convinced Diana is the saint she wants them to think she is, and the more they rely on her, the stronger her influence becomes.
Finnegan and Shanley expertly keep Diana’s secrets hidden just out of sight for much of Nocebo’s swift running time, almost until the final scene when all is revealed. It’s a satisfying response to the questions we’ve been jotting down throughout. Helping to sell it is the terrific performance of Fonacier as a maybe villain with her side of the story to tell before the night is through. It may become apparent what’s happening and why early on. Still, try to keep the advanced puzzler in your mind at bay and enjoy how it all develops. I promise there’s something interesting happening that has some decent stakes for everyone involved. When you’re working with a small cast like this, and they are giving it their dazzling all (Green, as usual, approaches Christine in an atypical fashion), it’s exciting to witness.