Filmed in Ontario’s prime cottage country of Parry Sound, Iodine (2009) has the foundations of a murder mystery, but writer / director / co-producer / co-composer / co-editor / co-star Mike Stasko makes it readily clear the story is less about what happened to John’s father, and is more of a a blurry drama about a troubled man’s mental disintegration as major stressors all come to a head.
John (Stasko) is a mess: he’s sleep-deprived from multiple gigs as a teacher, recording producer and sort-of musician, and a call from his sister to head north to the family cottage and look for their missing father is both a nuisance and an unscheduled vacation.
John quickly runs out of anti-anxiety medication, causing him to react towards his sister’s panic-stricken calls with anger, and seemingly caring little about whether his father is living or dead. He’s initially intrigued by the mystery when he meets a neighbour named Avery (Ray Wise), a physics professor who knew and recently saw John’s father.
For a while Iodine hovers on the mystery element – Did Avery kill his father? is the dominant plot suggestion in the trailer – and Stasko’s characterization of Avery blooms into an intriguing suspect who’s part metaphysical philosopher, and a manipulator, seemingly daring John to play an intellectual game as a means to find the truth about his father’s disappearance, and learn about some secret ‘thing’ the two men were ‘working on’ before the disappearance.
Just as the story moves towards a kind of Deathtrap thriller, John calls Laura (Vicki Rivard), one of his students, and invites her to the cottage. The new-found couple bond and enjoy each other’s company, swimming and sunning themselves like adolescents, while his sister’s calls become more hysterical. The sister’s pleas to the local law has a Deputy Peel telephoning John, and it’s around this juncture where John’s either being truthful to the officer – claiming his sister’s a paranoid drunk – or he’s spinning lies to preserve a false state of bliss.
Reality is the enemy, and the lack of medication has John contemplating a permanent stay at the cottage – one aspect of a delusional state that forces Laura to leave. Alone on the island, John’s paranoia goes into overdrive, heightened by sharp headaches and an apparent lack of appetite. In his disintegrating mental state, he heads back to Avery’s lodge, and the two have one more discussion that answers the question of his father’s disappearance once and for all.
Stasko’s script is somewhat akin to Session 9 (2001) in which one character’s increasingly aberrant behaviour foreshadows a tragedy that’s rooted in the friction between two characters. In Iodine, Avery may appear to be the initial suspect, but that becomes irrelevant when John himself breaks down and admits to his father’s colleague that he’s done everything possible to avoid calling the police – moves tied to a fractured father-son relationship that had his father walk out on the family when his mother was dying of cancer.
John’s neglect is therefore payback, and the twist finale – which isn’t dissimilar from the shock revelation in Session 9 or The Upside of Anger (basically, the mystery character’s been dead for a while) – shows John to be partly complicit in his father’s death: had he acted immediately upon arriving at the family cottage, John may have been able to save his father from dying after being caught in a huge bear trap.
Stasko almost pulls off the drama, but perhaps the chief flaws lie in the introduction of Laura, and Deputy Peel. Laura’s sudden appearance is meant to push John into discussing his family and the death of his mother, but she interrupts the otherwise intriguing mind game between Avery and John that’s played out in the isolated environs.
In a standard Hollywood thriller, John would’ve gone bonkers and killed Laura, but Stasko doesn’t take that facile route, and keeps the conflicts and mystery murky and tied to whatever reality John is currently experiencing.
The film’s tone takes a radical shift, though, when Deputy Peel is introduced in a series of scenes that play out as near slapstick: underscored with a goofy country song, Peel is a lazy cop who fumbles around town before heading out to John’s cottage to do the job no lawman would shrug off in favour of a nap. (His character is also an idiot: when the phone rings, he takes a bite out of a sandwich before answering what his instincts/professionalism should tell him is a serious call.)
The weirdly comedic flavour of Peel’s scenes are jarring, and they’re editing in a hurried montage that rushes Peel to Avery’s lodge, and discovers a body on the pier. That abbreviated sequence the fades out, and Stasko flips back to a prior time frame where John confronts Avery, and the mystery of John’s father is revealed, as well as the body on the pier.
The fractured time frame isn’t jarring due to the film’s already odd structure, but it’s peculiar that Stasko chose to retain the flawed Peel scenes instead of reducing them to components in a longer and more linear montage prior to the revelation of the father’s state.
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Flaws aside, the film’s weirdly hypnotic tone is accentuated by Avery’s lengthy monologues (beautifully performed by Wise), and some visual references to Avery’s concepts. The most striking is Avery’s positing of reality being not a three-dimensional world, but a two-dimensional shadow being experienced by John.
The interrelationship between those views is evoked by several shots of island shorelines reflected in the lake, and of a poetic shot where Laura looks out of a window; her two faces – one real, the other a pale reflection – casts doubt as to whether she’s really at the cottage with John, or she’s an invention to help him cope with his mental crash.
As a drama, Iodine has rewarding moments, but the tonal shift from the Peel scenes kind of muck up what could’ve been a tight story of mental disintegration. As the film’s co-star, Stasko manages to hold his own against Wise, and any performance roughness works, since John remains untrusting of his world, and an intellectual neophyte trying to comprehend Avery’s heady theories.
Anchor Bay’s DVD sports a clean transfer of the film and the sound design is solid and constant (a practical move that also masks a bit of camera noise during Stasko’s periodic use of long takes). The cinematography exploits the striking beauty of classic Ontario cottage country, and the set décor is comprised of the familiar nick-knacks and duct-taped, hand-me-down furniture that most people typically cram into their cottages.
Among the extras is a commentary track with Stasko and co-producer / cinematographer Eric Schiller, where the scope tends to focus on location filming, character specifics, and plot aspects – the latter discussions clearing up some of the film’s murkier areas. The two filmmakers also compare Stasko’s first assembly edit, and the tonal differences between the 2.5 hour first cut, and the final cut, with the concluding act that remained more or less intact from Stasko’s assembly.
There’s also a lengthy making-of featurette covering the film’s 3-week location shoot in Parry Sound (in town, and at Stasko’s family island cottage), a stills gallery, and a phone conversation in which Stasko and Wise discuss the actor’s attraction to film, favourite roles, and the horror genre.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan