The year-long Blumhouse/Hulu collaboration has reached the halfway mark, and while the first four episodes of Into the Dark have been a mixed bag at best the series stepped up its game with last month’s battle of the sexes in the elevator-set Down. That trend, both in content and quality, continues for March with the the best entry yet. Treehouse is a funny and fast-moving tale of comeuppance with surprising story turns, a memorable lead performance, and some real heart.
Peter Rake (Jimmi Simpson) is a celebrity chef with books, restaurants, and a TV show to his name, but he also has some trouble brewing in the form of unspecified accusations his lawyer is working hard to settle. He’s divorced and shares custody of a young daughter, but looking for an escape from the noise Peter heads to his family’s country estate for the weekend to spend time with a sister he hasn’t seen in a few years. A group of women renting a house nearby catch his eye, but his efforts to woo them run into unexpected obstacles including stray animals, mysterious figures, the betrayal of his own body, and some angry reminders from his past.
Director/co-writer James Roday, he of Psych (2006-2014) fame, takes the holiday themed series in an unexpected but welcome direction — leprechaun horror was right there! — with the concept of the Ides of March. As applied here the term refers to a day set aside for the settling of long-standing debts, and it’s that particular nightmare that Peter finds himself immersed in. The film opens with a breezy attitude introducing Peter as a “bad boy” chef who loves his daughter, enjoys his freedom to insult people under the excuse of a joke, and has something of an old-fashioned attitude about women. He’s a likable enough guy if you didn’t know better, and it’s there where the film comes into focus.
Peter’s night goes from the high of hosting several young women for dinner in the hopes of flirting, impressing, and maybe even bedding one or more of them to the low of realizing why they’re really there. His actions, both past and present, demand reckoning, and like so many men before him he has answers, excuses, and defenses aplenty that only result in the heat and terror being turned up even higher.
One question the film raises is the idea of forgiveness, and another is the prospect of change. Today’s world seems to offer very little opportunity for either as online mobs are so quick to pounce and denounce anyone who crosses the line, and the fast-moving world of social media has shown itself again and again uninterested in the possibility that someone might better themselves and make restitution. It’s all about the punishment, and the film puts an interesting spin on that reality.
The Blumhouse TV budget has kept the series in check so far when it comes to cinematography and visuals, and that television feel remains here, but Roday takes full advantage of the California landscape and the large house’s grounds ensuring that his very timely nightmare unfolds against an attractive backdrop. He also manages the single creepiest image of the series so far when Peter is visited by a terrifying-looking being that walks through his front door.
The message of Treehouse rarely strays from being pretty on the nose — the shit men have gotten away with since the beginning of humanity was never okay, whether done in jest or true maliciousness, and it ends now — but the theme is wrapped up in an entertaining and occasionally very funny package. Several of Peter’s comments earn a chuckle thanks as much to the writing as to Simpson’s ace delivery, and some of them challenge the viewer for having that response. The quest for laughs does push too hard and at the wrong time here and there, but it works with this character more often than not.
As fun and creepy as it gets, though, the episode also delivers two powerful dialogue beats that hit hard with both purpose and intent. One comes at the end of the film, but the other is delivered by Agnes (Nancy Linehan Charles), the family’s housekeeper of many years approves of the young women’s celebration but cautions never to forget past pains. “Something terrible happens to a woman, and it just lives in you,” she tells them, and it’s likely she’s speaking more than metaphorically. Charles is quite memorable in the small role thanks to smart comic timing and the way she carries the weight of past misdeeds on her seemingly frail frame. The women (including Julianna Guill, Mary McCormack, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Stephanie Beatriz) represent all those he’s crossed paths with throughout his life, and they each stand tall as a jury to his crimes.
Treehouse is going to lose some viewers through its tone and outcome (not to mention the inevitable label of “#metoo horror”), but it entertains regardless of how well its message lands. Simpson finds wit and humor in his character’s pre-hell existence, the supporting players walk a fine line between playful and threatening, and the film leaves viewers with an emotional punch. Odds are it won’t be the last swing in this particular battle.