★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
This sexy Russian thriller morphs into the supernatural when a youthful indiscretion comes back to haunt a young engaged couple. This movie packs a lot in: A false villain, a foolish internet posting, a love triangle, and a vengeful ghost. It doesn’t always patch its plot holes, but it is entertaining. The Ex has gorgeous cinematography, and, did I mention it’s sexy? I think I did.
Directed by Evgeniy Puzyrevskiy
If you haven’t been paying attention, Russia has been producing films that strongly resemble American films over the past ten years. Comparably, their cinema is a young industry relative to commercial output. But their movies are resembling Hollywood more and more with each passing year. They produce epic war movies, and historical dramas, sports stories, and have a track record of some Horror movies that have made it state-side. Films like the Alien-like Sputnik (2020), the gothic haunts of Queen of Spades: Through the Looking Glass (2019), and the demonic plague horror of III: The Ritual (2015) have been arriving via the festival circuit, and now we are getting a sexy thriller. Or, is it a ghost story? Or both?
The Ex (a.k.a. Ex, a.k.a. The Ex-Girlfriend) had its North American premiere at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival and delivered a slick mash-up of the two sub-genres. Sexy ghosty? Something like that. We are introduced to an attractive young couple, Sasha (Konstantin Beloshapka) and Katya (Vera Kincheva) who announce to their friends Oleh (Sergey Dvoynikov) and Zhenya (Ekaterina Shumakova) during a night of going out for drinks that they are now engaged. Oleh, is a bit of a randy lout, and ham-fistedly comes up with a toast for the couple. Zhenya clearly is not thrilled with the news.
And now we have a classic love triangle. Jealousy. Resentment. Envy. Sasha and Katya do love each other, but they communicate poorly. Katya is a stressed-out workaholic who obsesses over small grievances and has some trust issues. Sasha is laid-back and oblivious. When he starts to receive sexy phone messages from a ravishing ex “girlfriend”, Masha (Zhana Danilova) to whom he can’t resist responding. (Not smart.) Both Zhenya and Oleh offer terrible advice to Sasha, and eventually, Katya starts picking up on clues that there may be another woman from Sasha’s past that she has to worry about.
At this point, this has all the trappings of a Fatal Attraction-like thriller. There is a good bit of manipulation and obfuscating going on, and Sasha, being a hapless dupe who should know better, is getting himself deeper and deeper into Katya’s doghouse. Meanwhile, Katya starts seeing a shadowy figure of a ghostly woman who shows up at curious moments, putting her at unease. Our couple misses a key bit of dramatic information because they are getting their sexy on, and are missing the story of a woman who shoots up a wedding party, and then herself. Is this foreshadowing? Does this have to do with the mysterious woman that Katya keeps seeing? You bet it does.
There is a terrific call-back to Cat People, with Katya alone in a public pool, only to be joined by this mysterious figure who blinks in and out of existence. More proverbial levers are pulled, and buttons are pushed, and the dramatic tension is terrific through the first act and a half. And then, the ghost gets aggressive. And the sexy thriller aspect of the film comes to a dead stop. Quite literally.
The movie then transitions fully into a ghost story, with Sasha realizing that he has been targeted as part of a curse due to some foolishness he had done as a teenager. A lesson: Don’t mess around with photoshop. It will come back to haunt you. The revelation of what he had done stitches together the major fragments of the movie, and the film gets a countdown timer in which Sasha and Katya have to do a shotgun Orthodox wedding and a series of other rituals to rid themselves of the curse.
Unfortunately, the third act feels rather formulaic, after using the first two acts to build this intricate web of deceit and treachery. That was delicious. The ghost story could have used some added spice. Although she has a wonderfully tragic back-story, she’s not nearly as scary as she should be. In truth, there was more tension in the sexy thriller love triangle than there was with the ghost. I think that had the writing picked one path and invested in it wholly, this could have been an awesome film. I totally bit hard on the false villain set-up. And there was a moment where I felt both relieved and cheated when I realized that the false villain got dispatched, as I wanted to see that story come to a more satisfying conclusion.
Puzyrevskiy has created a sumptuous movie. It drips with style and flavor. His color palette is dynamic, shifting from red to blue to amber to set a tonal context. He uses veils very effectively as translucent obscuring elements, be they bead curtains or hospital shrouds. The romantic scenes are sexy without being gratuitous, and it helps that the cast is very pretty. When the movie switches from thriller to ghostly, the scenery changes as well as the palette. Gone are the nightclubs and luxury condos, having been replaced with dilapidated cabins, cluttered with drab artifacts and dust.
As it stands, it’s a good movie, that looks great, and has characters who fit neatly into easily identifiable niches. The consequences of having characters die seem to have little lasting effects on the surviving characters. Supporting characters just go out of sight, out of mind, and there are a couple of characters who get introduced as ghostly cannon fodder. It’s a horror film, so that’s not unexpected, but they really didn’t serve much to the plot. The Ex is entertaining, and you will be compelled to see it all the way to the very end.
I particularly enjoyed Vera Kincheva’s portrayal of the aggrieved Katya. She’s very cute, but has self-esteem issues, particularly when comparing herself to the model-like qualities of Sasha’s Ex. She has the best and most thorough character arc of the film. Sasha has an arc too, as when he realizes he may be to blame for the doom that befell the two of them, begins to curl up, his bravado long gone. In the end, though, this is Katya’s story. And, it’s all the more impressive as it is Kincheva’s feature debut.
The Ex is not rated, and I rather doubt that it will get a conventional theatrical release in the US. It would certainly end up Rated R, mostly for nudity and sexual content, language, and some violence. The movie is very light on gore, but there are a couple of grisly moments.