[Panic Fest] LACED Review – Queer Villainy and Toxic Relationships on a Cold Winter's Night
Laced, written, directed by, and starring Kyle Butenhoff exposes itself as a somewhat uninspired thriller that reads like an episode of Snapped. Stories depicting women in abusive relationships or lovers who kill their spouses are well-worn, and Butenhoff does little to give audiences a narrative with a particularly captivating perspective. While its story isn’t unique, the film is well executed — saved by impeccable performances, direction, and visually rousing cinematography from Sam Robinson.
With a snowstorm raging outside, Molly (Dana Mackin) settles in for the night with a shepherd’s pie in the oven, a football game on the television, and her drunken husband Charlie (Butenhoff) knocking back another beer in the leather recliner. It’s easy to sense the unspoken tension between them and Molly’s discomfort with Charlie’s masked short fuse. Molly’s intentions are made clear from the film’s outset — it’s Charlie’s last supper, leaving Molly to pursue a new life with her lover Victoria (Hermione Lynch).
As the film opens, Robinson pulls us down a warmly lit hallway with his camera, building tension before closing in on a knife chopping potatoes, then Molly’s eyes, devoid of emotion. His photography, with the support of the score and Brigit O'Regan’s fierce violin, elevate the suspense.
The queer relationship at the film’s center is rather frustrating. The fact that Molly is a closeted lesbian yearning to live an authentic life isn’t her motivation for murder. Still, the audience is meant to believe it is until her valid justification reveals itself near the film’s third act. Unfortunately, Mackin and Lynch lack genuine chemistry, making their romance less believable.
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Directly following Charlie’s murder, Molly and Victoria share a sex scene that, while tastefully shot, feels wholly unnecessary to furthering the story. What’s interesting about their character dynamics is that Molly has simply traded one toxic relationship for another. While Victoria fulfills Molly’s desires, she’s also aggressive, calculating, and short-tempered, like Charlie. Knowingly making love with a dead body nearby is something psychopaths do, and while Victoria fits the bill, Molly doesn’t — making the scene that much more perplexing.
Where Laced shines is the performances. Each actor is fully committed to delivering a convincing portrayal of their character, but Zach Tinker, as Molly’s brother Austin, is the standout. Tinker is buoyant and earnest, commanding our attention and making us believe every pained line of dialogue he speaks and every tear he sheds, keeping the audience invested when the bits of unnecessary dialogue cause our attention to wane.
Lynch ensures that Victoria continues to surprise us. Her motivations are unclear, and many of the meticulous moves she makes on the proverbial chess board for the night take the narrative to unexpected and interesting places. She delivers each line with a sharp and fervent vigor, reminiscent of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (2000).
Laced has its faults, but one can’t discount its strengths, balancing out what otherwise might have been tossed aside as another paint-by-numbers thriller. Its passionate and menacing score, cinematography, and nuanced performances are its greatest achievement. As the feature-length directorial debut from Butenhoff, it’s a strong enough film, but its themes aren’t used to their greatest advantage.