Directed by: Phillip G. Carroll Jr. Starring: Chloe Carroll, Jim Schubin, François Chau. Runtime: 1h 29 min. Released: August 21, 2020.
Blending psychological thriller, sci-fi and horror, The Honeymoon Phase is a commentary on marriage about an experiment attempting to learn why so many marriages don’t survive past that honeymoon phase. Ironically, Phillip G. Carroll Jr.’s film focuses on the relationship of an unmarried couple. Eve (Chloe Carroll, also a producer on the film) and Tom (Jim Schubin) need cash because Tom is a writer and, naturally, they’re broke. They then hear about the Millennium Project led by The Director (François Chau) that will pay participants $50,000 to spend 30 days with their spouse in a secluded home as the scientists observe their behaviour.
Carroll Jr. also utilizes the idea of not knowing your spouse well enough when you get married in his commentary. The couple start out happy in the honeymoon phase and after a week of seclusion, they start to get on each other’s nerves. At one point, Eve sits on the couch and Tom asks, “Are you not going to make an effort tonight?” “Not for you,” she replies. Their honeymoon phase is believable and their bickering is even more effective and tense.
I found this fascinating as a study of finding out the breaking point of their “marriage” (remember, they aren’t actually married) and seeing what their limits are, as the screenplay incorporates themes of trust and unconditional love. Of course, this is all taken to an intriguing extreme when things escalate and it dips into psychological thriller. The Handler (Tara Westwood) plants doubt in Eve’s head about Tom and their relationship.
It adds a dynamic where we have to question if there is something wrong with Tom, or if The Handler is trying to scare Eve for purposes of the experiment. Chloe Carroll – married to director Phillip Carroll Jr. – is great here as Eve. She’s charming and plays the dynamic of this situation of her maybe being crazy so well. There are so many layers in her performance. This whole aspect and question of Eve’s sanity brings the psychological terror into the film. Is she crazy? Is she being gaslighted? I won’t tell.
The Honeymoon Phase is right up my alley as a one-location film, a high-concept science fiction film and psychological thriller. Suffice to say, it’s not specifically horror. I generally think of it more as psychological thriller as it never strikes the exact nerve to be terrifying. When there is horror, it’s mostly the claustrophobia of the situation and the discomfort about it, and there’s some surprising brutality at times. There’s also a dynamic shift in the third act where their situation really changes and that feels more like horror. It isn’t an issue that it never feels like a traditional horror film. It is its own beast, combining the reality show Big Brother (with its social experiment and seclusion), as well as Alex Garland’s Ex Machina with the general set design and aesthetic of the couple’s white uniforms.
Carroll Jr.’s visual direction also helps, with some really cool shots like a rotating skyline during the credits, as well as some cool transition shots (one of Eve’s eye is awesome). Carroll Jr. also edits the film, and the pacing is strong for the tight 89-minute runtime. I love social experiment films so the curious viewer in me would have liked to have seen the scientists at the Millennium Project observing the couple’s progress in the house. Obviously, we see everything that goes on in the house, but I like to watch the research process like we do in some films like The Stanford Prison Experiment, but I realize now this aspect would hurt the flow of the film. We know all we need to know about the slightly mysterious Director, and his motivation as a scientist to do this experiment is believable. It’s also some of the best character work in the film as it’s so smart and surprising. It’s a character driven film, so I connected to the relationship between Tom and Eve, as well.
Specifically about Tom, I enjoyed the dimensions Jim Schubin brought to the character. He has an intimidating side and while I think there are ways he could be more intimidating, whatever he’s asked to do he generally does it well. There’s a spoiler in the opening line of the film where Tom reflects on his time during the experiment that could take away some tension, but the film is about the route there and trying to figure out the puzzle of this film.
That puzzle comes to play in the third act, which is brilliant. I won’t dare spoil and I liked this film throughout but the twist brings it close to being “great.” The direction it takes is surprising and it doesn’t feel like it comes out of left field as there are hints sprinkled throughout. There’s nothing worse than a twist that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t feel earned. The Honeymoon Phase lines up its dominoes perfectly during its set-up and the film earns the surprise as every piece of the puzzle falls into place.