Guillermo del Toro sets the stage by talking about subjectivity in art and how an artist can only draw what they see. He says how that code of conduct is only associated with things considered beautiful by the artist and those gazing at them. But when the artist creates something horrifying or beyond human comprehension, it’s categorized as a whim or folly. Keith Thomas’s “Pickman’s Model,” which is written by Lee Patterson and based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft, asks what if an artist’s most disturbing conjurings aren’t a figment of their imagination? What if they are, in fact, an accurate representation of the world around them? And in order to find the answers to these questions, we follow William Thurber (Ben Barnes), who is an art scholar in 1909 Arkham (a fictional place), Massachusetts (a real state in the USA). Whenever he isn’t drawing at Miskatonic University (again, a fictional university), he spends his time drawing his girlfriend Rebecca (Oriana Leman). However, one day, after chancing upon the work of Richard Pickman (Crispin Glover), Will’s sense of reality begins to warp around him, thereby putting his family and his own life in danger.
Major Spoilers Ahead
What Causes Will Thurber’s Unraveling?
During one of Will’s classes, a man named Pickman joins them in drawing a semi-nude man holding a large stick. The teacher tells all of them to draw what they see, remember the basic shapes, and construct instead of just shading. After getting glimpses of everyone’s more or less realistic interpretations of the model, we see Pickman going absolutely haywire on his canvas. Naturally, it piques Will’s interest. He tries to get a peek and notices that Pickman’s interpretation is out of this world. The man in his sketch has four arms. His skin has weird striations and boils. His eyes express shock or pain. And he’s bleeding out from the side of his chest. The image is horrifying, yes. But what’s more disturbing is that Pickman is seeing all this in a model that looks pretty normal to everyone else. Later that night, Will learns a little about Pickman’s history and inheritance, and he goes to the cemetery to meet him and witness more of his grizzly drawings.
As expected, Pickman doesn’t make the cut at the university. So, in order to make him feel better, Will agrees to see more of Pickman’s paintings. Pickman shows him a painting of Lavinia (Megan Many), his great-grandmother’s great-grandmother. She was apparently burned at the stake for killing her husband and serving his “still-warm flesh” to the members of her coven. Will becomes incredibly disturbed and bolts out of his house. He goes into the street and pukes his guts out. He sees a man in a carriage suckling on a woman with a hairy bosom. Although Will looks away, someone beckons him from that carriage. He approaches the vehicle and gets his chest slashed by a deeply scarred woman. Next, he wakes up in his bed, assuming that it was all a dream, but his torn-up shirt says otherwise. He rushes to Rebecca’s party, where he’s supposed to meet her father and make their relationship official. However, the one-two punch of the sightings of that same scarred woman and the knowledge that the man in the carriage was Rebecca’s father causes Will to have a breakdown. Assuming that Will is suffering from alcoholism, Rebecca essentially breaks up with him.
Now the first problem that appears in these first 20 minutes is that the thing that seems to be the cause of Will’s unraveling, i.e., Pickman’s paintings, aren’t all that horrifying. Everything from the production design to the costumes, the sets, the performances from the cast, the score, the camerawork, and the color grading is pitch-perfect. But what Pickman is saying about his paintings and what Will is seemingly feeling upon seeing his paintings and what we are supposed to feel while looking at them isn’t on the same plane. The camerawork, the lighting, the sound design, the editing, and the nature of Pickman’s paintings themselves are supposed to make us as delirious and hypnotized as Will. However, it doesn’t. The craftsmanship is undoubtedly great. It’s not exactly spine-chilling or nightmare-inducing, though. I think that’s got largely to do with its overall presentation. The VFX artists do manipulate the pictures to simulate what Will is experiencing. Then again, it’s not enough to send someone on a downward spiral.
What Prompts Will To Go After Pickman?
After experiencing a public mental breakdown, Will returns to Pickman’s apartment and finds out that he and his paintings are gone. Then the narrative moves forward by 17 years. Will is now the “tastemaker” of a renowned artists’ society. He is married to Rebecca, and he has a son with her named James (Remy Flint). One night, he finds himself in a nightmare where he’s young again and in a luxurious house with an ornate door that leads to the dining hall. Those doors open up for him, and he walks into the live-action version of Pickman’s painting, where Lavinia is serving her husband to the members of her coven. When he wakes up, he rushes to the ground floor and unpacks the painting, sitting at the entrance. And his worst fears come true. The painting is by Pickman, and he evidently knows where Will and his family reside. Soon after that, James gets a look at the painting before Will can get rid of it. Pickman then not only makes it into the club James is in but also into his home, where he chats with Rebecca and asks Will to look at his latest work. However, when both James and Will suffer from nightmares, he goes to Pickman with the intention of killing him.
The second act of “Pickman’s Model” comes with its own set of issues. Now, Ben Barnes and Crispin Glover are certainly great actors. Their Boston accents, though, are a major distraction in the first act itself. After the time jump, they not only have to keep up their accent but act old as well. And I won’t sugarcoat this; the execution is rough. This can be the result of a lack of preparation or because the actors weren’t given enough time to let the accent settle in. Because both Barnes and Glover are doing their best to give their respective characters a sense of authenticity. But they sound very unnatural. None of the other actors even seem to have an accent. So, I don’t understand why these two were forced to have one. In addition to that, the writing is not good. There’s way too much exposition. I understand why it’s necessary. But without any visual aid, it leaves everything to our imagination, which isn’t in any way boosted by the words coming out of the actors’ mouths. At the cost of sounding repetitive, I understand the intention behind the creative choices. It’s the presentation that feels faulty.
Will’s visions and the story that Rebecca says are either supposed to be an aftereffect of the painting and Pickman’s presence or a warning of what’s about to happen. The practical effects, the lighting choices, and the way Thomas hides the most horrifying thing in plain sight are commendable. Does it induce fear, though? I don’t think so. They feel like they’ve walked out of an “Insidious” movie. The campy visuals of that franchise benefit it because that’s the tone the films are going for. In “Pickman’s Model,” it’s supposed to be disturbing, dark, and gothic, thereby making the visuals quite contradictory to the tone. All that said, I’ll say that the film talks a lot about the dark side of art and how it can capture the reality of life without filtering anything out. It can reflect our deepest fears. But since no one is ready to comprehend their own issues, they blame the artist instead of working on their insecurities. You can say that it’s an alternate take on the phrase “don’t shoot the messenger.” However, that begs the question: is Pickman the harbinger of evil or the one who is actively bringing evil into everyone’s lives?
‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ Episode 5 ‘Pickman’s Model’ Ending Explained: Did Lavinia Get To Will’s Wife And Son?
When Will tells Pickman to leave Rebecca and James alone, Pickman says that he’s going to do so only after he comes and sees his latest work. Hoping that this is the only way to get Pickman off his back, Will obliges and goes to Pickman’s house. After spending a few minutes there, he realizes that it’s the house that he always sees in his nightmares. They proceed to the basement, and when Pickman disappears for a moment, Will tries to burn it all down because he truly thinks that his work shouldn’t exist, let alone be displayed in a gallery. Pickman pulls out a crowbar and his latest paintings and rushes towards Will, who pulls out his gun and shoots down Pickman. That’s when a literal monster appears out of a well in the basement and drags Pickman into it. Will lets the place go up in flames and leaves. However, the next day, Will finds out that his gallery has been populated by Pickman’s paintings, which possess Joe (Seamus Patterson) first and then get to Rebecca. The film concludes with Will finding out that Rebecca has cut up James and is preparing a feast for an ancient god with his body parts.
If we read into “Pickman’s Model” way too literally, we can theorize that Lavinia was in cahoots with the Devil, and she’d feed innocent souls to “Him.” That duty has been passed down through generations all the way to Pickman, who does the same through his paintings. Although it seems like he always wanted Will to be his model, it becomes evident that he was only a part of his plan. He wanted the teachers over at Miskatonic University to fall into his trap, display them in a gallery, and give him access to hundreds of viewers unknowingly gazing into those paintings. When that doesn’t work, he takes the long route, i.e., Will. On a slightly metaphorical level, “Pickman’s Model” is a subversion of the widely held notion that artists are supposed to make positive art and entertain and make people happy. But if one’s worldview is not all bright and sugary, or if one only sees the negative aspects of the world around us and wants to talk about it because nobody else will, what is that person supposed to do? Should they not make art? Or should they just go ahead with it, knowing full well that they won’t be accepted?
These philosophies do sound good on paper. But Lee Paterson and Keith Thomas’s interpretation doesn’t work at all. There are points in the film where it seems like a significant number of plot points have gone missing. The pacing feels way too rushed. And the elements that are supposed to be scary or horrifying or haunting don’t seem that way. I was genuinely excited about this film because I’ve seen Keith’s work in “The Vigil,” where he turned the apparently simple act of “Shemira” (which is a Jewish ritual where a person has to watch over a body from the time of death until it is buried) into a terrifying ordeal. You can see shades of that in “Pickman’s Model” via the smart use of low-light imagery and employing a dark, morbid tone to examine the supernatural. However, as mentioned before, the plot, the characters, and everything needed more time to breathe. With all that said, I do hope Keith continues to make more horror films because he clearly loves this genre and wants to explore its uncharted territories.