Screwdriver: One unnerving little thriller

Screwdriver - Courtesy Buffalo 8
Screwdriver - Courtesy Buffalo 8 /

A few days after screening Screwdriver, I’m still thinking about it. It’s one of those films that’s befuddling, head-scratching, and somehow captivating. Parts of it very much feel like a stage production between three characters, a chamber piece in which the tension unspins largely through dialogue and decisions the characters make, or in some cases, refuse to make. This makes Screwdriver a slow-burn thriller that’s certainly a conversation starter, if nothing else. It’s also a promising feature debut by writer/director Cairo Smith.

AnnaClare Hicks stars as the recently divorced Emily, who moves from rural Nebraska back to California. There, she catches up with her high school friend Robert (Charlie Farrell), an academic still writing his dissertation. His wife, Melissa (Milly Sanders), is a high-strung, uptight pharmacologist, who, for whatever reason, happily accepts Emily into their home.

Screwdriver – Courtesy Buffalo 8 /

From the outset, it’s clear that Melissa and Robert have nefarious intentions. Why exactly Emily doesn’t catch onto this until the last act is puzzling. Did anyone think to come looking for her? How is it she can stay at this couple’s home indefinitely without anyone really checking in on her? The script certainly has some holes, but the performances make it easy to ignore some of the more questionable narrative choices.

Because this is such a restrained film largely set in Robert and Melissa’s home, none of this would have worked if not for the strong performances all around. Hicks really shines in this role, playing an evangelical whose world has been turned upside down by her divorce and the questions Robert poses to her about faith. Hicks excels at displaying her character’s emotional distress. Meanwhile, Farrell and Sanders especially are all kinds of creepy, almost from the get-go. There’s something sinister hiding behind their initial niceness.

Screwdriver – Courtesy Buffalo 8 /

Screwdriver eventually unfolds into a cult-like premise, with Emily as the victim. However, and this again goes back to the script, it’s unclear why exactly Robert and Melissa are so interested in her. Do they simply want to shatter her faith? What exactly do they get out of it? There’s also a lot going on here regarding relationships, and not only Emily’s divorce. Melissa and Robert can’t have kids, and this is a pretty major point that deserved a little more breathing room.

The slow-burn builds to a fairly wild final 20-30 minutes that’s worth the wait, especially once Emily is truly pushed to the brink by the married couple. It makes for at least one harrowing and startling sequence. While Screwdriver has a few narrative holes, it’s a fascinating watch regardless. Smith is a director to watch. Despite its flaws, his first feature has some truly chilling and suspenseful moments, making for a hair-raising character study.

Screwdriver arrives on VOD on November 10.

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