The Willowbrook, a new thriller from first-time director Zach Koepp, has billed itself as “a thriller made for the Tik Tok generation”. I’m a millennial who’s never had a Tik Tok — and my favorite sub-genre of the thriller/horror category the last decade or so has been movies that focus on social media. Perhaps beginning with 2010’s Catfish documentary, I’ve enjoyed most movies I’ve seen that have a social-media spin to them.
Found footage films like Unfriended and The Houses October Built 1 & 2 were some of the earlier gems of this sub-genre; films like Sissy and Ingrid Goes West have been masterclasses in how terrifying social media and influencers can be. Upon hearing about The Willowbrook, I was excited to see how this film stacked up against some of the greats.
The Willowbrook introduces us to a specific type of influencer; the health and wellness influencer. If you’ve spent any significant amount of time on Instagram, you’re probably very familiar with this sort. Not only are they trying to sell you a product, but they’re trying to sell you on a lifestyle (I guess Gwenyth Paltrow walked so wellness influencers could run).
After surviving an overdose, Jordan and her brother Ace show up at the home of Lacey (Jessica Bishop) for a wellness retreat. It’s a beautiful home in the woods, but Jordan and Ace are greeted by a pair of strange and off-putting characters, Syd and Adam, who are Lacey’s live-in employees. Lacey’s boyfriend Dakota is outside shooting a rifle; even without this bizarre introduction to the characters, we would know that Lacey is up to no good. She’s got a follower – a visitor staying at the retreat – chained up in the basement.
Some of the acting in The Willowbrook is a bit stiff and forced. Adam, played by Christian Olivio, is said to be a character whose social skills are lacking – this feels like an easy explanation for his forced affect. Syd, played by Mar Sudan, also gives a performance that feels stilted and awkward. These two performances will either grow on you as the movie progresses and you get to know these characters, or you might find them annoying.
Erin Day is sometimes awkward as the lead, Jordan, but her performance is mostly solid; you’ll need to be able to get past her ridiculous eye make-up in the beginning of the film to appreciate her character, though. Sometimes she is written like a teenager who thinks themselves to be edgy and shocking, and she doesn’t always feel like the most realistic or relatable character.
Despite a few flawed performances in The Willowbrook, Jessica Bishop is excellent and believable as the devious retreat leader and social media star. Lacey is clever and manipulative; she spins things to make herself the victim. Like when she’s confronted about something by Dakota, she asks why he is asking her to relive her trauma. She uses phrases like this, talking about energy and healing, without ever seeming like she’s over-selling her character.
Lawrence J. Hughes is great as Jordan’s concerned and somewhat codependent brother, and Chris Boudreaux is solidly creepy as Lacey’s boyfriend Dakota. The story, too, is good, and creepy; while it might not really give us anything new, what it does do is give us a gratifying thriller. The biggest issue that I took with it, and what keeps it from being a film that I’ll classify among the social media greats, is that while our influencer villain is a great character, we don’t ever really get to know what motivates her twisted behavior.
From the beginning of The Willowbrook, the viewer is aware that Lacey is not entirely the wholesome, helpful person she portrays herself as, but it takes a while for Jordan and Ace to catch on to what’s really happening. The Willowbrook takes time to reveal itself, but it never feels too long or drawn out. The final 30 minutes of the movie are a continuous escalation to an inevitable conclusion, and an ending most will find very satisfying.
Zach Koepp both wrote and directed this thriller, and it’s an impressive directorial debut. While some transitions to flashbacks are a bit clumsy, overall the camerawork and aesthetic tone of the movie is consistent. Although there are some flaws in the writing, particularly in regards to a few characters, The Willowbrook has every element a thriller needs to be entertaining, and is an enjoyable watch.
The Willowbrook will be released on digital platforms by Gravitas Ventures on November 8
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