Heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, Sarah Winchester employed her vast fortune to create an architectural oddity: a multi-storied mansion with no logic, comprised of doors, stairways, and passages that open and end without reason. In the Spierig Brothers’ Winchester, Sarah (Helen Mirren) is motivated by her self-described remorse: she blames the guns her husband’s company manufactured for the violent deaths they cause. Atoning for her role in it all, she communes with the spirits of the deceased, building rooms for them to find peace in the afterlife. This, of course, invites the spirit of one who is not looking for peace, who begins terrorizing Sarah, her niece Marian (Sarah Snook), and particularly, Marian’s young and innocent son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). Meanwhile, laudanum-soaked psychiatrist Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is sent to assess Sarah’s sanity, but finds himself tangled into the ghost story.
By all means, Winchester is an entertaining film. Never truly remarkable, it could be best described as capable. It’s engaging to the point that one never anxiously anticipates its end, and not being boring is truly a virtue. It’s effectively frightening, despite horror being generated by less-than-creative (and repetitive) jump scares. They actors are all good, better than the characters they play. Mirren, playing Sarah with one-note aggressive sharpness, is not necessarily convincing as grief-stricken, haunted, or shame-ridden, but is still able to sell her character, even when she seems disinterested in her own film. That is to say, Winchester is pleasant enough.
Yet beyond its passability, its pertinence is notable. A horror film about gun violence is unique, with demons secondary to the real-life issue, which is successfully brought into the historical ghost story without feeling sanctimonious. When Sarah explains to Eric the significance of guns as a tool of death, or when a possessed Henry takes up a rifle to threaten his family, the point is evidently tied to our contemporary discourse — and could have been taken from our current headlines — but fits itself into the film’s period drama snugly.
Jason Clarke in Winchester (2018) (Photo by Ben King – © Winchester Film Productions / IMDB)
However, in saying that this pertinence is notable, that is all it is. Capable of little more than bringing up topics, Winchester is a messy film which could never be called thoughtful. Guns are bad, but also a protective tool against evil spirits. The Winchester legacy is a bloody one, but there’s no skepticism of Sarah’s actual complicity, nor of her comfort within the fortune the guns have amassed for her. Mirren is perhaps admirable to a fault. Her character, who should be a complex mix of guilt and apology, is instead clean of the crimes of her trade, despite these crimes driving her.
But Winchester is not giving space to ambiguities as much as it is glossing over them. The Spierig Brothers’ film wants to exist within its own incoherence: the Winchester legacy and its guns are bad, but Sarah is good. So her place within that legacy is ignored beyond her remorse. Ultimately, despite Sarah’s efforts to build rooms for spirits, her apology is flat. Despite Sarah’s articulations of it, Mirren is not playing remorse. The film refuses to acknowledge fully what it wishes to examine. The strange depiction of the rifle-as-saviour as well as tool of violence is enough to render Winchester‘s loaded politics scattershot. When the film then includes references to America’s history of on-going violence and trauma, depicting the ghosts of slaves and First Nations peoples as victims of the gun, as well as references to the American Civil War, its clear the film cannot carry the weight of its message.
There’s a desire to discuss these issues, but Winchester never goes beyond simply bringing them up. This is a missed opportunity for what could have been a sensitive look at American culture and violence; it becomes a tastelessly frivolous inclusion of significant issues which deserve better examination. We focus on Sarah’s weak apology (perhaps we can speculate if a restless spirit murdered by one’s fortune-making company would be calmed by a statement of “Well, I feel bad about it,”) and the torture of the living — those still benefiting from the Winchester company — at the hands of the dead. Winchester is in part about gun violence, but more about how to absolve oneself of guilt.
Again, Winchester is by no means a bad film. But when it tries to push itself beyond genre fun into politics, ethics, and social issues, it stumbles along only to reveal its lack of understanding. As a haunted house film, it’s perfectly fine. As a look at violence in American culture, Winchester is as confused as someone who is lost in a creaky old labyrinth of a house.