Movies that worm their way into a disturbed character’s head can be a discomfiting experience, especially when they’re done really well. (I firmly believe that Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven is a great film. I also believe that you’d have to work pretty hard to get me to ever watch it again.) The British import The Ghoul is a clever, deceptively chilly example of narrative unreliability, presenting an increasingly askew perspective in a way that’s somehow both off-putting and absorbing. It lingers.
Writer/director Gareth Tunley wastes no time in establishing the basis for an intriguing psychological thriller: As a favor to his former partner, an off-duty cop (Tom Meeten) poses as a depressed patient in order to covertly gather information on a murder suspect from a psychiatrist. The film scarcely finishes setting up this premise, however, before beginning to tear it down, dropping increasingly large, worrying hints about the worldview of its central character. By the time another therapist with an infectious interest in the occult enters the picture, the lines between fantasy and reality are thoroughly scribbled over.
Debuting filmmaker Tunley has a long history with Ben Wheatley (who executive produced here), and their work shares some definite similarities, including a non-condescending affinity for the working class, as well as a knack for combining the mundane and the macabre in unpredictable proportions. What ultimately sets The Ghoul apart, however, is the way that it keeps finding opportunities to fragment its own narrative, monkeying with character motivations and sequences of events in ways that don’t always fit together until later. (Hours after watching, the ah-hah! moments keep popping up.) Even amid all of the fascinating Mobius strip shenanigans, though, the film’s largest achievement may be in its depiction of the main characters' surroundings, giving London a tangible, unclean presence that both echoes and amplifies the volatile, contents-under-pressure psyche of its protagonist. Against this backdrop, who wouldn’t go at least a little bit mad?