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Cruel-_-Unusual_poster_small

When it comes to crime, what, exactly, is the most effective form of punishment? Incarceration is obviously a popular option, given the exponential increase of bodies in prisons (at least in the U.S. of A.) but how effective is it really? There’s also execution, of course, with all of the moral quandaries, philosophical issues and inability to correct mistakes that come with that particular path in the woods.

While incarceration and execution can have varying degrees of effectiveness as far as recidivism goes (execution, in particular, makes it difficult for criminals to re-offend unless, of course, they happen to be Horace Pinker), is there actually a form of punishment that could make a criminal truly regret their transgressions? Is there some way to make a murderer feel sorrow for their actions, a way to make a monster realize their own monstrosity?

Writer/director Merlin Dervicevic takes a look at one potential (albeit far-fetched) form of punishment/rehabilitation with the low-budget, Canadian export Cruel & Unusual (2014). In this modest little film (confined to a couple of interior locations and a few exterior locales, with a small cast), Dervicevic and co-writer Claudia Morris posit a scenario that’s part Cube (1997), part Groundhog Day (1993) and never less than engrossing. While Cruel & Unusual is far from a perfect film, it manages to be effortlessly thought-provoking, which is far more important.

When we first meet schlubby, unassuming Edgar (David Richmond-Peck), he seems like the kind of stock, cinematic character who’s only one small step away from a crippling midlife crisis: he frequently argues with his “out-of-his league wife,” Maylon (Bernadette Saquibal), and accuses her of sleeping with his boss; Maylon’s son, Gogan (Monsour Cataquiz), is a holy terror at school and a tremendous discipline problem; and Edgar’s blue-collar brother, Lance (Kyle Cassie), constantly drops by unexpected and seems to show an unhealthy interest in Maylon.

Just when it seems as if we’ve stepped into a particularly depressing domestic drama, however, Cruel & Unusual drops the other shoe: after walking into a room in his house, Edgar emerges in some sort of anonymous-looking facility. He has a strange tattoo on his arm and quickly finds himself in a room full of assorted strangers, sort of like an AA meeting but even grimmer. As Edgar soon discovers, this is some sort of alternate form of punishment: not only has he has been accused of killing Maylon, Edgar is also informed that he, himself, is now dead.

As per the rules of the facility (explicated by literal talking heads on high school AV-type rolling TV carts), Edgar and the other “prisoners” must constantly relive the days of their crimes, bearing witness to their actions over and over until they finally realize the gravity of their sins and are properly repentant. The crimes run the gamut from murder to suicide (those who kill themselves are derogatorily labeled “suies” and looked down upon by everyone else) but the process is the same: face your shame, over and over, until you’re finally “rehabilitated” and allowed to “move on.”

The only problem, of course, is that Edgar didn’t kill Maylon…at least, he doesn’t think he did. As our bespectacled protagonist tries to desperately prove his innocence and escape from the facility, he meets a trio of like-minded fellow prisoners: William (Richard Harmon), who cold-bloodily killed his parents; Julien (Michael Eklund), who drowned his own children during a custody dispute with his ex-wife; and Doris (Michelle Harrison), who hung herself from a tree and let her young children discover her swinging body.

Seeking answers, Edgar repeatedly delves back into that fateful day, replaying the scenario between him and Maylon over and over, trying to get some sense of the truth behind it all. As new layers are unwrapped and new information is learned, however, Edgar will come to understand the terrible truth about the day he and Maylon died, a truth that will either set him free…or damn him forever.

Despite an incredibly familiar set-up and execution, Cruel & Unusual still managed to pull the rug out from underneath me in the final third, making this one of the better, more capable sleepers I’ve seen in some time. Similar to Circle (2015) in that it takes a very basic sci-fi concept and then proceeds to fill in the outlines with some exceptionally thoughtful examinations on morality and humanity, Dervicevic’s film is never particularly flashy, yet still manages to pack a hefty punch.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the film’s final reel is not only “quite good” but “damn good,” sending the movie out in the best possible way, with a genuinely emotional, gut-punch of a final revelation/conclusion. Prior to the finale, Cruel & Unusual is undoubtedly well-made, if familiar: the acting is solid, the score is nicely evocative and the cinematography helps to establish the mood quickly and economically. Had the film maintained this level of quality throughout, I’d still have no problem recommending it, albeit more as a pleasant time-waster than anything else. The finale is so smart and impactful, however, that it manages to cast everything that came before it in a different, better light: Cruel & Unusual is proof positive that it (almost) always pays to see a movie through to the bitter end.

With its themes of self-sacrifice, acceptance, repentance and letting go, Dervicevic’s Cruel & Unusual ends up being my favorite kind of modern sci-fi film: smart, subtle, low-key, full of piss and vinegar and ready to take on our preconceived notions of how a polite society really acts. This doesn’t belong in the storied company of recent mindblowers like Automata (2015), Ex Machina (2015) or Circle (2015) but there’s nothing wrong with that, either: they can’t all be headliners, after all, and Cruel & Unusual proves that the openers can be just as interesting and revelatory, in their own ways.

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