Swedish/South African director Pia Marais has garnered a small, yet loyal following on the festival circuit thanks to her assured debut The Unpolished (2007) and its confident follow-up At Ellen’s Age (2010). Her third feature, Layla Fourie (2013), thus finds itself in competition for the top Golden Bear prize at this year’s Berlinale. Sadly, this highly anticipated effort from one of Europe’s most promising up-and-coming directors is a dismayingly formulaic and frustrating second-rate thriller. Layla (Rayna Campbell) is a struggling single mother, working as a waitress in a local strip bar whilst her young son, Kane (Rapule Hendricks), sleeps out back.
Desperate to carve out a more child-friendly lifestyle, Layla finds employment working as a polygraphist. She’s also given a golden opportunity heading the recruitment process of a casino in an isolated vacation resort. However, whilst Layla and her son embark on the arduous car journey to her new work, she fears a mysterious vehicle is following her. Unable to keep her eyes fixed on the road, Layla’s paranoia leads to a devastating accident – one so severe that if revealed it would certainly result in her imprisonment. From here on in, Layla must utilise her skills to hide the truth of this ill-fated evening.
Marais’ South African thriller looks to capture this aforementioned sense of trepidation and personal anxiety through the utilisation of a simplistic morality tale. However, despite boasting the enticing premise of a lie-detector operator masking her own deadly secret, Marais’ film fails to make the most of this promising narrative device. Instead, Layla Fourie relies far too heavily on familiar genre tropes in its attempts to convey an atmosphere of taut, overriding tension, that never truly pays off. Whilst technically efficient, the film lacks a sense of ingenuity and, thanks to a bland and rather uninteresting protagonist, fails to evoke much sympathy for her perilous predicament.
Heavy-handed and riddled with ridiculous moments of unnatural coincidences, the script of this trite and incredibly predictable thriller would be far better suited to a bawdy action movie than arthouse cinema. Some attractive visuals remain eye-catching throughout, yet feel very much like they’re merely papering over the cracks of a flimsy narrative which sees its characters move from scene to scene with no real motivation – other than that the script necessitates it. Never once accelerating your pulse, rising your blood pressure or resulting in unnatural perspiration levels, audiences strapped to a polygraph machine whilst viewing Layla Fourie could confidently lie about their enjoyment of this rather mediocre and uninspiring thriller.
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