Cruel & Unusual keeps it clever and grim

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Starring David Richmond-Peck. Rating unavailable.

In the 1962 cult classic Carnival of Souls, a young woman survives a freak car accident that kills the other passengers, only to find herself increasingly alienated from the world around her. Fifty-two-year-old spoiler alert: she’s dead, but doesn’t know it.

This is kind of what happens to the protagonist of Cruel & Unusual, a shlubby everyman named Edgar (the excellent David Richmond-Peck) who accidentally kills his Filipina wife (Bernadette Saquibal) and finds himself in a dank, dark place. Soon, he’s sitting with a group—let’s call it Murderers Anonymous—with daily confessions mandatory. Forever.

Edgar has no idea why he’s there, or where “there” is. In fact, the accident happened during an attack of his bleeding ulcers. He starts to wonder if she was trying to bump him off. Most of this pondering transpires when he keeps escaping the place, only to relive the fateful events, each time with a slight twist in detail or perspective. Is he also a goner, or is this some weird kind of dream therapy?

A part-time teacher, Edgar seems like a nice, if somewhat possessive guy. Over the course of his institutional encounters, he becomes attached to a young woman (a memorable Michelle Harrison) still wearing her hot outfit from 1972, and he cares about her story too. Eventually, he and we start wondering if he was really as kind to his wife and her troubled preteen son (Monsour Cataquiz) as he thinks he was.

This Carnival of Groundhog Days certainly has some clever turns. The puzzle is well-acted and seems fairly thoroughly thought out by Manitoba writer-director Merlin Dervisevic. But this grimly self-serious effort lacks humour and tonal variety, and it’s possible that some viewers may want to run when they see a crack of light in the exit door.

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