Chris Hefner’s The Poisoner is a film of remarkable restraint, pared down to its dour, skeletal essentials. The visuals are colorless, the actors almost never speak to one another, and the camera only moves when necessary. A Gothic tale that feels like a slightly modernized (though the movies exact period is left intentionally vague) Edgar Allan Poe offshoot, we follow an unnamed woman (Meredith Miller) as she enters into a bizarre, macabre contract with an similarly unnamed man (R.K. Shuquem), who has requested that she marry him, and then slowly poison him to death. Though strange, it does call to mind certain real world precedents, and as a whole, it’s never concerned with the gory details. The focus here is on the wife’s twisting psyche, delivered to us in monotone narration, expressing fear and doubt in small, hidden glimpses.
“Nonchalance is impossible to manufacture,” remarks Miller’s character early in the film. As the story unfolds, we see that sentiment put to the test. The woman plays her titular role with a grim sense of purpose, keeping herself from emoting while her husband occasionally chokes, vomits, and grows more and more enfeebled. She expresses concern over what will happen when the poison finally succeeds in taking the man’s life, but soldiers on, preserving a sense of domestic normalcy that is darkened by the unspoken details of what is actually being witnessed. She sweeps the floors with a mask over her face, avoiding any lethal byproducts of her deeds and lunging into each whisk of the broom as if it were all just a performance. The living quarters have become hospice. An environment in which death is imminent but not acknowledged. All of the films indifference is manufactured.
The camerawork is often so minimal that the piece begins to resemble a play. We track through a wall as the wife prepares a toxic meal in the kitchen, then delivers it into the dining room to her waiting husband. The widest shot of a given scene is typically the anchor, allowing the viewer to see everything that is (and in many cases, is not) happening. By painting such stark, unmoving compositions, and then adorning them with cryptic touches, such as the recurring images of snow, one gets the sense that there is always something troubling beneath the surface. Nothing hides behind editing, everything is visible, and yet there is still a pervasive, mysterious air. Uneasiness comes not from wondering what will happen next, but from dreading the unseen progress of that which is already underway.
By delivering such a bleak take on an already dreary story, Chris Hefner has created a lean, sinister film. Everything about the production is tight-lipped and ominous, and when the credits roll, it’s hard not breath a sigh of relief. In this, his second feature, the Chicago director has already shown a patience and carefulness that many filmmakers would envy, and a clarity of vision and tone that mark a valuable cinematic voice.