James Henson’s Rut reimagines Tales of the Unexpected for the oppressive world of 21st-century finance. In this brief but plot-heavy short, the duplicity of an unhappy businessman and his wife are revealed as they visit an old friend after falling on hard times.
The film’s opening shot of a stuffed antelope head expertly sets the tone of the film. Staring helplessly ahead, the animal is trapped in stasis, an imitation of life crassly displayed as a symbol of prowess. Themes of cruelty, entrapment, and power are all evoked in this single shot. The following scenes, wherein protagonist Nick (Samuel Pike) is met with hostility and frustration by everything he comes into contact with, engender a sense of mundane bleakness and inertia, with the antelope’s head lingering over the proceedings.
While Rut sets the tone well in its early scenes, it really comes into its own once Nick and wife, Liv (Elisabeth Bennett), visit their wealthy and eccentric friend Rafe, portrayed flamboyantly by Phil Kingslan John. Although the bombastic over-acting of Kingslan John jars against Bennett and Pike’s more toned-down performances, it serves well to bring the audience into Rafe’s world.
The set design of said home is wonderful, with the rooms cluttered with expensive artefacts and an earthy, almost organic colour scheme, which evokes the home of the Armitages in Jordan Peele’s Get Out [USA, 2017] (notably also featuring the motif of a stuffed deer’s head). The stifling atmosphere, as well as the nods to horror, contribute to a creeping dread which pervades the dinner scene. The acting in this scene is fairly stilted, but it works to exacerbate the awkwardness of Rafe and Nick’s conversation and as such is not necessarily a failing but a boon to the film’s tension.
Ultimately, however, Rut avoids horror, aiming instead at a Hitchcockian series of twists and turns, which are interesting but not wholly unpredictable. This hard pivot is perversely joyful, providing the viewer with a sense of tenuous relief. The utilisation of cruelty and duplicity as a means of personal fulfilment is difficult to digest, as is the sense that nothing has fundamentally changed for Nick. The film’s power, though, is not in its narrative, nor its performances, but in its deft inter-mixing of genres. Henson’s impressive manipulation of mood keeps the viewer on their toes, and ensures that Rut never gets stuck in one place.
'Rut' was a film in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2020.