It all started when the three actresses and writer-director Joe Robert Cole were kicking around ideas for a side project. And after Cole convinced them to focus in on the Rashomon effect, which allowed each actress to tell a different but equally plausible account of a single event, their ideas for a story quickly spiraled into a spine-tingling psychological twister.
"Let's play sisters," Polly Cole tossed out.
"What if we all had the same name?" asked Mekenna Melvin.
"My family has a lake house in Michigan," offered Natalie Smyka.
Amber Lake is a creepy, psychologically dark and dramatic twister.
The sisters, all named Amber, are the offspring of an affluent and respected psychiatrist with the ugly disposition of sleeping with different patients with mental disorders. With the partial exception of Amber Thomas as a young child and then once as teenager, none of the sisters has ever met the man.
Until they receive identical letters from Dr. Patrick Thomas (Carmen Argenziano), none are even aware they had sisters. What they are aware of, however, is that each has been plagued with her own mental disorder, one that mirrors the same clinical diagnoses given to their mothers.
From the moment the three women meet, it becomes clear that their varied disorders will clash, sparking some early conflicts between them. But any hesitation and general animosity quickly dissipates when their father arrives at the lake house.
He is at once aloof and condescending, briefly introducing himself before quickly turning in early for the evening. His reason to do so, however, is a lie. Once he quietly retires to his room, he listens in on their conversations.
He uses what he hears to confirm his diagnoses, and then confronts them over breakfast the next day. What happens next isn't clear cut. The story is retold to Sgt. Eugene Stockard (Timothy V. Murphy) three times as he interviews each of them as possible suspects. Their father — who callously reveals himself to be cold, calculating, and equally disturbed — has been murdered.
Four conflicting disorders and chronic uneasiness make the film.
Each retelling is like looking through the fogged lens, tainted by their varied disorders. It changes how you see each character, not only in how the storyteller behaves but also in how everyone behaves from their perspective.
There are a few story slips in the telling, with one in particular that cannot be explained away by taking the Rashomon effect to its extreme. Specifically, it occurs when a third-person point-of-view fact cannot be reconciled with a first-person account: one of the Ambers says she walked around the lake in one scene, but then later claims that she stayed in all night.
This slip distracts, but doesn't irreparably damage the film or the less conventional approach in making it. Each actress had picked her disorder independently, without telling the others.
Amber Hannold (Melvin) is agressive and disruptive with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Amber Allen is attention seeking and inappropriately promiscuous with a histrionic personality disorder (HPD). And Amber Thomas (Cole) is socially inept with avoidant personality disorder (AvPD).
In preparation, Cole asked them to research the disorders, write their own character histories, meet in public for a mock job interview, and sit down with real therapists. He also asked them to improv several scenes before he wrote the script.
Amber Lake is the story of three broken women who are brought together by a darkly sinister protagonist and plot line as cracked as any crafted by Hitchcock. The effect it delivers — unnerving creepiness — compels you to shift sympathies, all dependent on three fractured stories being told. It's a crazy ride and somehow darkly beautiful.
Amber Lake By Director Joe Robert Cole Turns 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
Cole first started making waves when he won the Urban World Film Festival's best screenplay award in 2006. Since, he has written for Warner Brothers, Sony, and Fox, and currently writes for Marvel Studios in Los Angeles. While Amber Lake is still amateur by some measures, it is a directorial debut that will be much better remembered than Firelight (1964) an on par with Duel (1971).
You can download (rent or buy) Amber Lake from iTunes. Unlike many indie releases, the price points for renting the film are standard ($3.99/$4.99). Amber Lake can also be rented from Amazon Instant Video. Cole, Melvin, and Smyka are no strangers to the small, indie, and big screens, and it is great to see them play characters that they had a hand in making.