Review by Jonathan Berk
Director Sean King O’Grady’s new film, The Mill, couldn’t be dropping at a better time. Employees have been voicing frustrations with working conditions for the last few years, and 2023 has seen some major unions go on strike. While some metaphors are a little on the nose, O’Grady’s film explores the relationship between an employee and their employer through an engaging sci-fi story.
Lil Rel Howery is a businessman who wakes up in an open-air prison cell with no recollection of how he got there. A lone voice of the person in the adjacent cell tells him he has to do the work. In the middle of the cell is an ancient grist mill, and Howery is forced to work as a beast of burden to avoid termination. He must find a way to escape the daily grind before the birth of his child.
Howery is solo for most of the story. He’s isolated, and besides some flashbacks, the film mostly falls on his shoulder to carry it all. Howery often has a rambling, nervous energy when delivering dialogue, and that style is utilized a lot. Unlike Hulu’s other recent Sci-Fi release, No One Will Save You, which opts to have no dialogue, Howery doesn’t care that he’s alone, voicing all his thoughts and emotions throughout the film. His style works well with this delivery mechanism, as it somehow feels natural for this character to be uttering all the things to no one in particular.
While the set is minimalist, the visuals in the film are not. O’Grady’s style helps make what could have been a bleak and boring film look a little more interesting. There are moments where we see through Howery’s eyes in flashback, while other times we are made aware of his mental state through the lighting of the scene. O’Grady has a strong grasp of the medium and the genre, and uses it to tell the story and keep it interesting.
There are many films that have tackled some topics and themes found in The Mill. The Platform, Snowpiercer, Moon, Sorry to Bother You, and The Family Man all come to mind while watching Howery struggle to push that big stone wheel. He’s reminded of his pregnant wife and wants to be a good husband and father. He has made so many sacrifices to provide his family with the best life possible. He's true company man who now finds himself being asked to give just a little more. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine a more 2023 movie.
While not every aspect of the film works, the combination of Howery’s performance, O’Grady’s direction, and Seamus Tierney’s cinematography make The Mill a compelling watch. The allegorical nature of the film is often a tad too easy to make real-world connections, which sometimes makes moments feel a little silly. Still, something is being said that many of us lower-middle-class individuals will likely connect with.
The Mill is streaming on Hulu on October 9.