Despite the spooky séance setup in Brooklyn 45, writer/director Ted Geoghegan (We Are Still Here, Mohawk) is less interested in exploring a literal interpretation of ghosts. Instead, the filmmaker connects the ghosts of our past as a metaphor for present-day national turmoil and paranoia. The period set chamber piece gives precedence to fraught tension among friends over conventional scares.
It’s December 27, 1945, mere months after the official end of World War II. The nation is still reeling, but for Lt. Col. Clive “Hawk” Hockstatter (Larry Fessenden), it’s even worse; he lost his wife Susie on Thanksgiving. In an attempt to reconnect with her, Hawk invites military friends Marla Sheridan (Anne Ramsey), her husband Bob (Ron E. Rains), Major Archibald Stanton (Jeremy Holm), and Major Paul DiFranco (Ezra Buzzington) over to his Park Slope Brownstone in Brooklyn under the guise of drinks among old friends. They barely have time to catch up when Hawk locks them into his parlor and forces them to participate in a séance meant to summon Susie, but the circle breaks, trapping them inside a hell that may or may not be of their own making.
Geoghegan does inject literal ghosts into the proceedings; Hawk’s attempts to communicate with the dead get answered straightaway with telltale signs of a supernatural presence. But who or what’s on the receiving end of the séance’s call doesn’t matter; they fade to the background quickly as this tremendous cast instead grapples with their role in the war and the actions committed in the name of duty. Trapped inside a single room means the story unfurls through character interactions; this is a dialogue-dense paranoid thriller. That escalates once suspected Nazi Hildegard Baumann (Kristina Klebe) enters the equation. Tensions mount as mistrust drives a wedge through the friend group.
The emotionally charged morality debates among friends are compelling, as are the distinct personalities that drive them. Paul’s militant determination to continue the war’s culling of Nazis keeps the parlor on the precipice of violence, while Marla tries her damndest to ground everyone as the voice of reason. The ensemble cast brings profound complexity to their characters, keeping the volatile discussions about handling a dead body and a potential Nazi in the room engaging. The downside is that Geoghegan introduces so many heavy thematic questions into the mix that it loses focus. The central question of whether one horrific act can condemn an otherwise good person gets lost in the shuffle as said acts, heinous acts, get revealed, and identities get called into question. The more we know about these characters, the less clear the narrative path becomes.
That’s likely the intent; nothing is black and white or purely good and evil. It’s also easy to draw parallels between the tumultuous time in 1945 to now. But for this neatly rendered single-location narrative, it increasingly becomes difficult to follow a clear throughline or find the takeaway. Even some of our protagonists are shell-shocked and unsure how they got there by the film’s conclusion. Trauma on a global scale is a tricky, complicated thing to unpack, and Geoghegan ambitiously tackles it with aplomb, even if the heady conversations contained within can branch further away from the central thesis.
Brooklyn 45 eventually circles back to the supernatural, and the director of We Are Still Here reminds audiences of his knack for gore with one unforgettable scene. Other hellish imagery doesn’t land as well, but that’s not the selling point of Geoghegan’s latest anyway; the cast is. Fessenden’s wry charisma kicks off the party proceedings, but Ramsey and Holm stand out as two soulful humans with painful wartime histories that came out at opposite sides of the moral compass. Or did they? Brooklyn 45 seems more content to present humanity as is- flawed, painful, and messy- than offer any tidy resolution. There may not be any satisfying comfort in that, but it makes for a genuine and fascinating puzzle experiment nonetheless.
Brooklyn 45 made its World Premiere at SXSW and will release on Shudder.