Short films can achieve many things in their compact running time, but the teasing out of a character-driven mystery is surely one of their most intriguing aims. Oliver S. Milburn’s tight little real estate drama Dunroamin is seemingly about nothing more than a young man touring a nice country house that is up for sale, but the situation turns grim almost immediately after the man named Steven (Robert Emms, “Kick-Ass 2”) enters the home.
Or does it? It’s hard to say, really, and Milburn leaves us in doubt for almost the entire movie, increasing the tension while leaving room for us to question what’s really going on and what we’re really interpreting here.
Sarah Parish (“The Holiday”) plays Joanna, the homeowner showing Steven around, and she becomes something of an audience surrogate as she — and we — first question Steven’s strange actions, then fear them. But at the same time, Steven isn’t doing anything particularly terrible. He’s just a bit of an odd guy and he repeats himself, suggesting to us that this encounter is somewhat rehearsed, another reason to at least distrust the guy.
As he wanders through the house, he seems to increasingly disregard Joanna, essentially taking over the tour as if he’s searching for something specific instead of waiting to be shown. Milburn doesn’t direct the house tour and the ensuing awkwardness between Steven and Joanna with any exaggerated style that would further fuel our suspicions, which proves to be a wise move.
Instead, he lets the actors and the bizarre qualities of the situation speak for themselves, leading us to wonder if Joanna is suddenly in great danger or if this is all some sad misunderstanding. Emms is smartly cast and great in his role because he initially seems so unimposing and then morphs into someone quite frightening before our very eyes.
It’s an effective performance both in the moment and in hindsight, because once we understand Steven’s surprise motivation, everything about his attitude and actions still makes sense. While Dunroamin is all about teasing out the truth and keeping us guessing, Milburn is not so enamored with the trickery that he loses sight of the meaty drama.
The reveal comes swiftly and smartly, broadening the picture’s emotional spectrum with an ease and immediacy that is rather impressive within the brief running time. Establishing and solving a mystery in just a few minutes is an ambitious feat on its own, but what Milburn achieves here with Dunroamin is uniquely clever, an unpredictable character portrait that speaks to the complexities of human interaction and experience and how we perceive those complexities, both naturally and cinematically.