The Terrifying Simplicity of Eight and the Exploration of Mental Illness

Eight is an Australian low-budget drama film written and directed by Peter Blackburn in what is still its only characteristic. It remains fairly obscure, but at the time of its release in 2016, it received some attention from various film festivals. Its obscurity, however, is unfair as it offers a unique and extremely realistic look into a woman’s crippling mental health. Shot in one riveting take, the result is eighty-one anxious and stressful minutes. A huge factor in the film’s effectiveness is its simplicity – there’s little dialogue, mostly one person onscreen the entire time, and takes place in one location. The plot follows Sarah Prentice (Libby Munro) just trying to leave her house, but unbearable OCD and anxiety keep her from doing so. The title comes from Sarah’s compulsion to do everything in eight – whether that’s eight kicks before she puts her shoes on, or eight clicks of the door before she opens it. She is held captive in her home by her own mind, and what makes Blackburn’s dramatization of Sarah’s story so effective is the way it borrows from the horror genre.


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The opening shot sees the camera pan up to an awake Sarah in her bed staring at the ceiling as her alarm clock rings. Camera movements are deliberately slow to match his wariness. Everything she does – except washing her hands or scrubbing surfaces – is done meticulously. However, each time she cleans up, it’s frantic and desperate, demonstrating one of her greatest fears in her condition. The film mimics Sarah’s feelings about the audience with its almost constant intensity, even when it can seem like very little is happening. Even when her panic seems to come out of nowhere, when her breathing goes from normal to rapid, it’s hard not to mimic that, especially for those who’ve been in a similar position to her in their lives. It’s the sudden tilt to its fall and the ups and downs it goes through that keeps the tension high. Much of the film recalls the hallway scene in the brilliant. Every time Sarah turns a corner, it feels like something awful awaits her. It’s the kind of tension the film manages to maintain every time she moves through the house.

The normal-looking house becomes claustrophobic and unwelcoming as Sarah sneaks in with extreme caution. The camera follows her closely, causing an overpowering and uncomfortable atmosphere throughout. It has the aesthetic of a haunted house horror with dark, shadowy corners and limited lighting. Essentially, it’s a haunted house movie without any ghosts because the real horror is much more authentic and in plain sight. Because there’s not much dialogue – especially in the first half – every sound is heightened. We hear every friction of her teeth-grinding hands as she washes them and it can be painful to bear. This is most evident in the first half of the film, and while it gets awkward, that’s exactly the effect Blackburn wanted to create.

The second half of the film features more dialogue and further develops the central character through interactions with others. These include her daughter, her husband, a therapist and a delivery man. A series of sporadic voicemails are left to gradually reveal more about Sarah’s life, and there is an eerie, transcendent impression left by some of these voicemails. It’s as if these are Sarah’s audible thoughts as she struggles with her inner guilt and fear. Blackburn is capable of creating terror out of things that most people wouldn’t question for a second. In addition to the voicemails, Sarah is deeply annoyed by the laughter of schoolchildren coming from outside her window, and there are frequent knocks on her door that sound deceptively aggressive.

You could say that the film is plotless and doesn’t tell a story so much, but rather demonstrates an in-depth study of a character. As it’s only an hour and a half in the life of Sarah, Blackburn cleverly lets the audience piece together what’s already happened in her life, and there are plenty of unseen characters playing pivotal roles. Sarah’s daughter and husband are heard on the phone and on the other side of her door in some of the film’s toughest scenes. Sarah’s devastating longing shows a tragic side to mental illness that can cause families to break apart. By keeping them off-screen and not revealing too much about them, Blackburn keeps the focus on Sarah, and we see how haunted she is by her previous life as a wife and mother. The guilt she feels as her daughter begs to see her is shown in a scene where she slumps against the door and collapses.

Munro’s performance elevates the tension and discomfort sought by the film. She creates such a likeable character in Sarah, and most importantly, she doesn’t over-act at all. Her brilliance in this role is amplified by the film’s documentary approach. It’s like a hidden camera is following her, and that on-the-fly perspective makes the film all the more raw and disturbing. His conclusion seems appropriate and justified as well. He doesn’t pretend it’s something that can be solved quickly without any difficulty, and while Sarah’s journey isn’t over by the end of the film, he leans towards something hopeful for her in the future.

Eight is a chilling look at a condition that is not talked about or understood enough. It’s as horrifying as it is heartbreaking, but it plays its part in successfully dramatizing a day in Sarah’s life. While not an easy watch – nor enjoyable – it’s essential viewing and reminds everyone how the dark side of life can be so simple, yet so terrifying. By scattering in the ashes of horror, Blackburn ensures that this drama is told in the most heartfelt and painful way. Combined with an engaged and flawless performance from Munro, there are few explorations of mental health that are more frightening or heartbreaking.

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