Director Conor Allyn Empathizes With the Devil, but Throws Amber Heard ‘In the Fire’

“I’m a fraud,” psychiatrist Grace Burnham (Amber Heard) tells Martin Marquez (Lorenzo McGovern Zaini), the mysterious boy she is treating for an undiagnosed and as-yet unexplored dissociative disorder. “I repeat the teachings of great men, but I’m not one of them.”

The analyst’s admission concludes the strongest sequence in director Conor Allyn’s “In the Fire.” It also sets the tone, and defines the era: the dawn of psychology when women were not taken seriously as professional practitioners of the mental sciences.  “We made sure to only study works on psychology or mental illness written before the turn of the 20th century,” director Conor Allyn tells “Entertainment Voice.” “If it was written after 1895 it was off limits for us. We didn’t want to bring any modern science to the table.” 

In the 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist,” the audience believes the supernatural cause of Regan’s misery because of the scientific rigor which went into the medical procedures. “In the Fire” is a different kind of exorcist movie, and Heard plays a major variation on the trope of satanic possession. Dr. Burnham is reluctant at best. We are guided into the scene by the repetitive and insistent beat of a metronome. It forces the focus on the present, with Burnham’s voice in full command, while delineating time in its most perfect measurement. The child is a savant, the violin is his instrument, but also emotionally detached, lacking empathy, and quite possibly homicidal. A case study years ahead of its time.

“The metronome scene is a hypnosis scene,” Allyn says. “Hypnosis was considered cutting edge in the 1890s.” The truest of the Christian-based believers in the Colombian badlands see the white man’s newest internal incursion, the mind sciences, as unnatural. Whether through coincidence of circumstance or the imposition of will, because of his mother’s death, Martin is branded the devil’s own child by decree of the grim and exalted Father Gavira (Yari Gugliucci). It has been said so often, even Martin believes it with a deep-seeded conviction. He is also suffering from a kind of autism, as yet, unknown, and has periods of extreme compulsive behavior.

“Those psychology scenes can be disturbing or sympathetic or emotional,” Allyn says. “They were certainly my favorite scenes in the film because we were using psychology in the way that it was done at the period.” Burnham’s climactic confession comes when Martin wants to know what her private lie is. Grace claims the lie as her fraud, but her inner truth sees the belief as her biggest fear. The doctor ignores breakthroughs as much as the child.  She is exhibiting casebook behavior in spite of her own performance. It is also Heard’s most effective scene. Apparently against her will.

“The only scene I remember [Amber] struggling with finding the truth was, ironically, the hypnosis scene,” Allyn said. “She said ‘I’m really struggling with this. I just don’t believe in hypnosis. I don’t believe in that in real life. How do I find the truth in it?’ We worked out a good bit and read stuff about how it works.” The training sunk in. Heard answers as if reliving a past trauma, in a reluctant trance of a deeply unwanted state, reliving emotional pain in physical dissociation. Heard’s voice is an easy guide through the association game, but her presence is strong when she loses control. Her lie is only a fear she says, compounding the lie.

It’s not that we don’t believe her. Heard is convincing in scenes where she is being scourged or beyond the capacity to think rationally because the events around her have become chaotic. But these are done by necessity, for the horror genre. The film itself would have been far more frightening, and Heard’s performance more engrossing, if she pushed her psychiatric credentials over B-movie scream queen tortures. 

Believing the boy is the father of lies, the zealous priest sentences Martin to death as a sacrifice. The newly arriving psychiatrist, a stranger in more ways than one, sees a child with special needs, perched on the verge of puberty. Because of his inability to properly communicate, Martin maintains an inscrutable secrecy, naturally evasive and intuitively calculating. For Zaini, his directed approach meant “just not to lean into possession, to act different because that’s the way he was born,” Allyn explains. The young actor was directed to “not be emotional, to not make eye contact unless he was getting something out of it.”

Zaini also brings natural physical attributes which offer otherworldly possibilities, and are used sparingly in the finished film. Like the ever-alien-appearing musical icon David Bowie, Lorenzo “has two very different sized pupils,” Allyn says. “One really large pupil and one small one, which is a real medical condition, but we left it a little bit hanging.” This adds to the subliminal ambiguity of the film. Martin can be “psychologically disturbed, something genetic could be going on, or he is possessed by the devil. We’re letting our character Grace try to make that diagnosis,” Allyn says.

“In the Fire” explores science over heavy-handed superstitious responses, some of which defies not only logical but storytelling sense. There are not many special effects in this minimally-funded horror creeper, so Allyn over-achieves, amplifying the action, often unnecessarily.

This is not limited to jungle fights, clerical tortures, and compound incursions. The lack of special effects budgets forced the actors to overcompensate. It makes sense for Martin, as his compulsions for finality drive him into a loop of insanity. Grace evolves into a maternal role, in more ways than one, breaking a cardinal rule of intimacy. This could be sloppily exploitative or a clue to satanic abandon, a mortal sin which also breaks doctor-client privilege rules in the most obvious way. Burnham retains an ambiguity which further alienates her both from the community, and her belief. Grace’s otherness is exacerbated by her infrequent use of perfectly proper Spanish, which makes her seem haughty. The villagers are right to keep her at a distance. 

Heard is stripped of subtlety, telegraphing emotions, adjusting a blouse, taking a scene-spoiling breath. She may have broken out in hives for one camera set-up, as her desire to emote veers into competitive territory in the film. Heard obviously added her own traumas, emotional, or legal, into her sense memory arsenal. But it often misfires. Occasionally her conflicting emotions clash with each other.

The scourging scenes are so violent, with shades of fetishistic extreme, it appears that Dr. Burnham is being allegorically scapegoated for more than the sins of modern science. “It is not a coincidence that Amber Heard, who’s gone through what she’s gone through in life, had an immediate connection when I first gave her this script,” Allyn says. “Well before the trial. I don’t know that we’re meaning to parallel her personal life so closely, but I do think that’s one of the reasons she connected so intimately with the character.” 

Touted as a film which sees the battle of science over superstition, “In the Fire” errs on the side of the supernatural, when it may only be parapsychology. Martin’s condition may give him special powers, or the illusion of them, but we get too many unnecessary distractions to make that distinction. “In the Fire” is a film about therapy without enough mental health. The major problem is the disconnected way the characters interact, and move the story. 

The final ambiguity of the child’s nature should redeem the film, but it only works conceptually. There is no emotion attached. “In the Fire” succeeds in offering a unique look into the early superstitions of demonic possession, but with major reservations. Even though he is quite able, it doesn’t look like Martin will have a second coming in future installments. Dr. Burnham won’t be making house calls either.

“In the Fire” releases Oct. 13 in select theaters and on VOD.