Sundance 2021 ‘The Blazing World’ Review: An Aesthetically Inventive But Flawed Debut

Sundance Film Festival

Something keeps spilling over into the world, and only Margaret (played by writer-director Carlson Young) can see it. That something is fueled by the grief that has haunted her since the death of her twin sister when they were children: as their parents screamed furiously indoors, Margaret watched her sister drown on the grounds of their sumptuous mansion. It comes in the form of intensely vivid hallucinations and holes ripped into the fabric of space-time. The something has merged with the shadowed residue of her trauma, driving her to the very farthest corners of her sanity.

Unstable as she already is, everything takes a turn for the worse when Margaret returns home one final time, enveloped back into the hurt of her parents. She is once again beckoned into that gaping portal. Swayed by the desperate belief that her sister is still alive and merely lost from this world, she falls easily through the cracks.

Whatever depth the film offers regarding mental illness or mourning becomes highly elusive once we sink fully into the dreamscapes of Margaret’s parallel universe. Rather than unraveling such a mystifying narrative, the film concentrates on the electrifying visuals of this alternate dimension, which include a prismatic desert, an overgrown imitation of Margaret’s childhood home, hallways cluttered with doors, and a bizarre darkness swirling underfoot. The traumas of her childhood are displaced and reignited as we trace her path through one bewildering realm after the other, danger lurking in every seam and crevasse. Margaret is led through it all by a being called Lained (Udo Kier), who offers her something bordering on closure. He is the one who originally tempted her towards that spinning void, and in this new world he is a guide to her in the loosest sense of the word.

Using a place so detached from reality to unravel the abuse of her father, the instability of her mother, or even her own personal feelings of culpability evolves into an arduous and at times confusing task, and The Blazing World struggles to find its emotional footing. Despite such a rich collection of cultural inspirations, there is a frustrating emptiness to the story and nothing feels conclusive in the end. Exploration of trauma is frequently abandoned in favor of a singular focus on visual aesthetic. Even Margaret herself seems to be missing some of the important fleshy bits of character-building. Despite the truly awful tragedy of experiences, her sadness seems flat at times, a weak impersonation of the real emotion. Eventually, the film becomes just as lost as its lead character. 

With all the dark whimsicality of Alice in Wonderland, this feature debut in the hands of director-writer-star Carlson Young is both ambitious and visually successful, but the clumsiness of the script becomes too overwhelming and the pacing a bit excruciating. The flaws within the narrative’s scaffolding are only somewhat mitigated by its thunderous score and wildly imaginative production design. A vibrant array of colors will dance across your eyelids after watching, but The Blazing World ultimately leaves behind the acrid, disappointing taste of wasted potential. 

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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