Studio: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Director: Amanda Evans
Writer: Amanda Evans
Producer: Greig Buckle, Amanda Evans
Stars: Sarah Dumont, Tom Ainsley
A troubled married couple’s relationship is tested when they become trapped in a camping tent with a venomous black mamba.
Here is the premise: A camping couple with marital problems becomes trapped in their tent with a venomous snake.
Here is the likeliest question: How does that simple setup sustain a 90-minute movie?
Here is the answer: “Serpent” is not a “man vs. beast” B-movie of popcorn entertainment fit for double billing alongside “Piranha” or “Anaconda.” Amanda Evans’ directorial feature debut is a psychological portrait exploring a fractured marriage facing internal as well as external threats. “Serpent” isn’t simply about the situation. It’s about how the situation compels these two people to relate to one another.
Also, before invoking the dismissive “Child’s Play” question of, “why don’t they just kick over the killer doll and be done with it,” understand that Adam and Gwynneth aren’t trapped with any average snake. Their third tentmate is a black mamba: the world’s fastest land snake, second largest venomous snake, and one of the deadliest apex predators known to man. If you were caught in an 8’x8’ enclosure with one the same length as the floor, it would be extremely unwise to make any sudden moves that involve throwing sleeping bags around in a panic.
Bear with this slight stretch of an analogy. Some sports fans find excitement in the unceasing back-and-forth battle of basketball. Others prefer baseball’s long stretches of anticipation punctuated by quick hits of adrenaline. Sometimes, neither camp of devotees fully understands why the other doesn’t define “thrilling” the same way.
The type of tension in “Serpent” is tailored for people who prefer the pitcher’s duel. Exhilaration isn’t equated with energetic athleticism culminating in a high score. Suspense stems from a chess match faceoff where foes are forced to calculate every possible action and reaction. If you aren’t interested in examining silent stares with wonder over what everyone, snake included, is thinking, “Serpent” is unlikely to captivate with its claustrophobic conflict.
The snake doesn’t slither into the movie until one-third of the way through, although its persistent presence from that point keeps its share of discomfort consistent. The tension within Adam and Gwynneth’s relationship on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily operate at the same intensity as the tension taking place in the tent. These dueling dangers threatening the couple sit atop a skewed seesaw of unbalanced suspense. This ruptures rhythm when the focus swings back toward sorting issues of infidelity while two fatal fangs sit in the center.
Even though “Serpent” takes its straightforward story as far as it can reasonably go, audience engagement isn’t always incentivized to stretch at the same pace. 40+ minutes is a long time to spend confined to the same flat four walls in a scenario without much flux in its fiction. Static lighting doesn’t do much to liven the film visually, though the camera moves considerably considering how restricted the space is.
Several shots are creative, often accompanied by a clever sound. One features Gwynneth in a pond with muted ambient noise both times her ears dip underwater. Another includes amplified audio of an eyelid blinking in an extreme close-up, of which the film has many.
Careful thought exists in every move “Serpent” makes, which is why its slips are all the more perplexing. Other aspects of cinematography are rough-edged, such as choices to cut before an action has settled or centering on indiscernible imagery like a lump of fabric or nape of a neck. And although Amanda Evans, who also wrote the screenplay, has a metaphor motivating each scene, thematic intent isn’t always expressed to the viewer.
“Serpent,” which was originally titled “Coiled,” is subtle about how it handles its Garden of Eden parallel or ideas concerning rebirth and reconciliation. Then a juxtaposition of Adam asserting dominance intercut with the black mamba preparing to strike hits with a heavy hand of obviousness. Applying the same gentle touch to each piece of symbology would go a long way toward evening out the movie’s multiple meanings. As is, it can be unclear what “Serpent” intends to say.
For the most part, “Serpent” manages to maintain intrigue in spite of a slow step and slim story, both of which are deliberate. Without succeeding on all fronts, the film still surprises by virtue of how much is attempted within a tight frame. Impatient people may find the premise wears out its welcome in short order. Those looking for cerebral drama to echo onscreen suspense will dig up a more fulfilling experience.
Review Score: 65