Before writing this film review I sat down and read George Sanders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” published by The New Yorker in 2010 and available to be read here. It would probably a better use of your time than watching the Netflix movie adaptation, and it surely won’t take 90 minutes, though that’s an assumption on my part. The story follows Jeff (Miles Teller), a prisoner who is undergoing experimental drug trials for a lighter sentence. Chris Hemsworth is miscast as the sunny, smarmy head of the drug trials, mostly featuring a drug that induces extreme feelings of desire and love and attachment. The movie is simply too predictable once you acknowledge the plot elements of secret drug trials and tests of loyalty and emotions. You’ll likely foresee the movie’s big reveals far before the screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, 6 Underground) reaches the obvious ploys for twists to turn Sanders’ more introspective, nuanced, and psychological story into a rah-rah formula sci-fi action movie. The first act is relatively promising and close to its source material, but the intriguing and philosophical questions about human connections, guilt, compliance, free will, and corporate hegemony are brushed aside for a silly series of action scenes, brawls, and big escapes. Mostly, I found Spiderhead to be dull because it was too predictable and because it didn’t have much more to say than any over-extended Black Mirror episode. It’s a passable sci-fi allegory that’s light on allegory and settles for being another anesthetizing streaming byproduct.
Nate’s Grade: C
Two new Ohio-made indie films have just become available for rental or purchase both on DVD and digital streaming, and I’m here with reviews of both. Terror Trips is written and directed by Jeff Seeman (Elly) and even won the award for Best Ohio Film at the prestigious genre fest, the 2021 Nightmares Film Festival. Then there’s Isolated, directed by Tyler Lee Allen and written by Michael Ferree (Poor Baby), a single-location contained thriller mystery. Both movies have their merits and both movies have their faults when it comes to developing a satisfying story.
I genuinely like the initial premise of Terror Trips. Six friends from Cincinnati start a business where they host tours and overnight stays at various famous horror locations for horror fans. They talk about Camp Crystal Lake, the Burkittsville, Maryland woods, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania mall as some possible destinations. Granted, plenty of horror movies take place in fictional locales (Haddonfield, Illinois) but this seems like a fun business idea. Go to the site, mingle with other horror diehards, and then watch the movie at the famous location. We get a taste of this with a somewhat meta montage, and then the movie transitions to its own fictional movie, a 1970s Polish flick (Black Volga) about a child abductor terrorizing a small town. The gang is disturbed by the realistic quality of the grindhouse film but also eager to travel to Poland (still only scenic Ohio) to scout it as a possible travel destination for their clientele. While there, they become victims of a KGB organ harvesting plot, which was not the direction I was anticipating with the first act. However, there was still possibility here. There are three places that can be emphasized with this direction: 1) characterization, 2) suspense, and 3) commentary. Let’s go route by route and see how Terror Trips performs.
It should be of little surprise that the characters in Terror Trips are inherently disposable. Horror is a genre that can get away with stock characterizations more than most, especially if there’s an added subversion or commentary to those stock roles. We have about six main characters, which is a good number to lead to plenty of death sequences. We know going into most horror movies that the character count is higher because it provides more people to then bump off. However, the group of six friends are so unremarkable from one another that you could rename them, consolidate them, or even remove them, and you would have little bearing on the plot. They’re six versions of the same character. They’re all horror nerds and that’s about it. I’ll credit the filmmakers for making them all very visually distinctive to tell apart, but the same kind of effort wasn’t given to what they were saying or how they were acting. For horror nerds, they don’t seem to recognize too many of the tropes to avoid. I wish at least one of the characters resembled the hyper-literate teens from the Scream franchise and could diagnose threats and options with encyclopedic vigor. What is the point of making them experts if they don’t use this expertise? I did like one character note; there’s a couple who engage in arguments, and before they walk away, or walk into what seems like certain danger, they say, “I love you” as a call and response. It’s funny that even under extreme circumstances, or moments of aggravation, they will utter their “love you”’s. I got to thinking about a deeper rationale for this, like characters who know they’re about to enter a definite horror no-no, and they don’t know if they’ll ever have the chance to say one final “I love you,” so they make a point to do so before any risky action. Perhaps I’ve imbued more depth in my analysis than these characters justify. I wish these characters were more interesting to remotely care whether they lived or died (more on that later).
So, if the characters aren’t going to entertain us or make us emotionally invested, then one other viable option is to essentially view them as sacrificial offerings and come up with some well and truly deranged manners of demise. This is another area where Terror Trips lacks development. Even abandoning the horror movie iconography and running with the organ trafficking goons, there is still plenty that could have been done. I wasn’t expecting the movie to so definitively go the Hostel route, but I was more surprised to get more scenes of Russian characters conversing about the dull details of their evil schemes than from the survival scenarios. If you want to be Hostel, with our characters placed on a slab to be carved up, then you better differentiate the killing. There’s one character who is running down the middle of an empty road (these people don’t really value stealth) and this character is pounced upon. They have their Achille’s tendons purposely sliced (Hostel nod?) and are dragged away still alive. Now, if you included this development, you’d want to also include a sequence where this character tries to escape, hampered by their injury cutting down on mobility, which would nicely build further suspense. Alas, none of that happens. This character might as well have been tackled and that’s it. A heavy torture angle is pretty budget conscious for a production, allowing devious creativity and twisted suspense, while possibly leaving much to the viewer’s imagination. I know we’ve moved away from the torture porn era of the mid 2000s, but if that’s your chosen playing field, you might as well make use of what it has to offer as far as discomfort. I’m shocked that there isn’t even one drawn out sequence of torture in Terror Trips at all. Maybe that’s a sign of restraint but I see it as more of failure to capitalize on its suspense possibility. There are no memorable dispatches or shocking deaths or well-developed suspense sequences. If you’re going to stick the audience with boring, interchangeable characters, at least make their troubles and terror entertaining.
So, that brings us to the third and final area for creative nourishment, the hardest one of them all, and Terror Trips doesn’t seem that interested in any form of social commentary. There was potential on a few storytelling fronts. The movie could have satirized the ugly American attitudes and general ignorance of its main characters as they travel to rural Poland. You could turn their general ignorance into dark comedy and it would also provide welcomed characterization. You could also have opened up the world of these locals more, showing the great economic hardships and pressures they are under to do what they have to do to survive. At least 2005’s otherwise forgettable Turistas (remember? It had Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde) had an organ harvesting plot where they made some stab at social commentary. In that film, they were taking the rich gringo organs and providing them to the poor and needy in Brazil, those who would never rise to the top of a transplant list in their lifetime. With Terror Trips, it falls into the xenophobic tropes that drew similar critiques from Hostel but without attempted commentary to smooth the portrayals over for added meaning. Once the movie reveals that every person in this town is in on the conspiracy, it makes every non-American seem duplicitous and untrustworthy. Again, if that’s the direction you want to go, then own it and really embrace it, but Terror Trips feels so indifferent to its villains. They could just as easily be any group doing any nefarious scheme. The scheme is just KGB goons doing bad things because they’re bad. There’s an exciting possibility here about “underground horror” blending fact and fiction, exploiting real people’s pain, turning sites of trauma into tourist destinations, whether it’s critiquing an audience or capitalism. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot intellectually going on with Terror Trips.
I wanted to highlight the ending, and in doing so will deal with spoilers, so you have been warned, dear reader. We spend the last 15 minutes or so following Ginny (Hannah Fierman) as she successfully calls for the police. Too bad that they too are in on it, and she apparently goes to sleep in the back of their car and allows the officer to carry her, like a child, into the creepy car from the horror movie-within-a-movie. There she’s also with one of her friends, the one who had their Achille’s tendons sliced. They commiserate and try to escape from the backseat (there’s a wall dividing the front and back seat like a cab). Then Ginny’s friend implores her to basically mercy kill them, and Ginny must go through her arguments of survival before realizing after everything they’ve been through that this might be a choice not presented later. Through tears, she slices her friend’s wrist, holds their hand, and watches as the life ebbs away – AND THEN THE MOVIE ENDS! “What?!” I spat at my screen. You have the Final Girl, or at least the supposed Final Girl, and you end things like this? It’s like the filmmakers ran out of time to make a climax. This is where the underwritten characters become an anchor. The movie cannot pull off this drama, especially as shaped as the film’s climax, because we haven’t invested in these people and their personal relationship. The work wasn’t set up for this as a big emotional payoff.
From a technical standpoint, Terror Trips is ably filmed. The visual compositions and acting are competent to good. I liked Abigail Esmena (They/Them/Us) as George and Fierman (V/H/S). They were both able to make positive impressions over the blandness of their characters. The Russian actors were authentic. Kate Kiddo (great name) was also memorable as the Polish intermediary for the tourists. The editing is a little overly jumpy for the first thirty minutes, like it needs to cut to a new shot for every sentence spoken, but it eventually settles down. The gore effects are few but serviceable and bloody. My biggest compliment is the sound design. For a movie spending a far majority outside, the sound quality here is shockingly good. I’m so used to sound being one of the most flagrant issues in low-budget indies, but here it’s an asset.
With Isolated (formerly titled O9en Up), we have a contained thriller, which means much will hinge upon the chain of discovery for survival or enlightenment. There’s no shortage of people-stuck-in-mysterious-room movies. It makes sense from a production standpoint. It’s cheap. I remember one movie I saw on Netflix where it was like 50 people standing at game show podiums and they had to vote one person to die every so many minutes or else one person would randomly die. There’s two dozen Twilight Zone episodes about characters trying to make sense of a mysterious place they’re stuck in. It’s also featured in just about any Saw movie. It’s an immediate mystery that can work wonders. The trick is to either string the cause-effect plot elements so that we are learning and building off that knowledge along with the protagonist or connect the clues as to what or why their encasement means for them. I enjoy survival thrillers. I included Buried on my Top Ten for 2010 and that movie is one hundred percent Ryan Reynolds inside one cramped coffin. The problem with Isolated is that the mystery doesn’t feel that intriguing after about 30 minutes. The room itself looks like it should have more mystery to it, with a countdown and a giant nine painted on the wall. There’s a skylight with a latch just out of reach. Our main character, Nell (KateLynn Newberry), is even given her phone, which plays a song on the regular that seems too specific to be of little insight. But what does the movie actually do with its time and mystery?
At 99 minutes, you might find yourself getting a little antsy for the next reveal or clue to maintain an interest. I’m surprised the movie keeps its protagonist as such a blank. Nell seems resourceful, determined, and nursing some kind of personal pain or regret, but why is she here? Because we’re not given anything direct, your mind may likely anticipate that a major twist is in store by the end, and lo it happens (I don’t think the end explains the many hoops). I think the location just isn’t that intriguing enough to sustain the central mystery, and because we’re given few insights into this character we’re sharing a cell with for a whole movie, it made me feel restless. After Act One, Nell is given a cellmate, so to speak, on the other side of her wall, Travis (Lanny Joon), and the movie becomes a two-hander, though the perfunctory dialogue exchanges sound like the screenplay is filling time. It reminded me of 12 Monkeys when Bruce Willis’ character, a convict from the future sent back in time and doubting his sanity, hears a raspy voice on the other side of his wall who seems to know his dilemma. It becomes a playful and antagonistic exchange, and Willis doesn’t know if there is someone on the other side of the wall or if it’s all in his deteriorating mind. With Isolated, if Travis is meant to be our lifeline, it’s not enough. Now in a confounding location we have a confounding character, and rather than add layers to the mystery and our understanding, it just feels like vague on top of vague in service of stretching out a running time to feature length. I don’t think the twist earns the time spent, nor are the implications handled in a manner that feels satisfying or worthy. The ending reminded me of Old where for the final ten minutes M. Night Shyamalan basically says, “Okay, I’m just going to tell you everything explicitly now. Hope it’s been worth it. It hasn’t? Oh. Oh, okay then. Well, anyway…”
As a low-budget thriller, Isolated has some nice technical merits to praise. The cinematography by Greg Kraus (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet) is very good with more than a few shots that made me nod in appreciation, like an attached camera angle to Nell running in a panic. The editing, also by Kraus, is solid and nicely integrated with the visuals. I liked the quick cut montages of awful flashbacks forcing their way inside Nell’s mind. There are some neat visual tricks here for a low-budget film. The brooding musical score by TJ Wilkins (Knifecorp) does a lot of heavy lifting for the story.
For both films, there is a difficulty in following through with the story direction each chooses. With Terror Trips, it’s a horror movie that abandons its premise early to become a bland organ harvesting thriller with characters that are too indistinct and personality-free to care and with suspense sequences that are brief or underdeveloped. With Isolated, I went a little stir crazy from waiting for enough vital components to keep my attention and intrigue. The main character is simply not that interesting of a character to share 90 minutes with. Each movie feels padded out and undernourished where it counts with its storytelling, failing to capitalize on the promise of its plot elements. Horror and mystery fans might find enough to satiate their genre needs. Both of the movies have technical merits and agreeable acting, but it’s the story and, even more specifically, the development of its characters and suspense or mystery scenarios, where they do eventually stumble.
Terror Trips: C-
Adam Deierling is a native Ohioan who spent ten years in the hustle and bustle of the L.A. film scene before relocating back to the Buckeye State in 2008. He has since focused on wedding videography and short films and spoken that his goal was to get a professional feature film off the ground locally, an admirable goal, and he wanted to create a family-friendly adventure film that could inspire others. That result is The Other Side of Darkness, written and directed by Deierling and filmed entirely in Ohio and West Virginia. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t know what to do with its major plot elements and feels a bit too lost by its own creative indecision.
Taylor Jo (Maggie Callahan), a.k.a. TJ is turning sixteen soon and eager to leave her small Ohio town. She works in her foster father’s auto shop and hates it and the direction of her life. Then one day she gets a mysterious note in the mail with a key that leads to an old Jeep. Turns out, the Jeep belonged to her biological mother and the note is from her still-living grandfather, Jack (Scott C. Davis). She hops in her new car, her best friend Hannah (Olivia Billings) and her cute brother Patrick (Drake Tobias) come along for the ride, and they head out to meet gramps. However, he might not be all that he seems, and a looming threat emerges that might cause the power system to go down, and then who can these beleaguered teens trust in these troubled times?
The Other Side of Darkness is like several different scripts stitched together, none of them richly developed or integrated to the other, which makes for an unfulfilling and tedious experience. Each of the half hours feels like a different movie. The first 30 minutes establishes the small-town life for TJ and her desire to escape, especially her predator of a foster parent. Then the next 30 minutes is about TJ and her friends going on a road trip to West Virginia to meet her biological grandpa and for TJ to learn more about her departed mother. Then the next 30 minutes is a mystery of whether or not the grandparent is who he says he is and discovering the terrain. Then the final 30 minutes is an action thriller to thwart homegrown terrorists. Each of these sections goes on far longer than it needs to, each of them presents very little sustained character development, and each of them feels adrift when compared to the other section. In the barest sense, these sections have a tenuous cause-effect relationship; however, the difference is whether the narrative feels like it’s actually building from scene-to-scene or just biding its time. I don’t know why we need a full half-hour to establish how awful TJ’s life is, especially throwing in the topic of sexual molestation, a serious subject that feels shoddily mishandled. The hook of this movie is the idea of our power system falling. Even the tagline says, “Who will you become when the power fails?” Well fear not, dear reader, because, spoiler alert, you’ll never have to wonder because the power grid doesn’t go down at all. The marketing sure looks like it’s going to be about people surviving in a world without power, with society possibly breaking down, but in reality, it’s about stopping two yokels from blowing up their local power station. That’s right, it’s not some far-reaching conspiracy that would trigger the crumbling of America’s interconnected infrastructure like the downfall of the Death Star. Nope. So, even if they blew up this lone power station, the power company would just come out and restore power. For a movie literally called The Other Side of Darkness and playing up a powerless world of survival, the actual employment of these big plot elements is strangely myopic and half-hearted.
Perhaps the title is in reference to the personal journey of our protagonist and her self-discovery, and I’ll humor this charitable interpretation and explain why this still doesn’t work. TJ’s story feels like it should have the right material to be engaging and even inspiring. The first part of the movie establishes her attitude, her plight, and eventually her escape via mysterious family member. This sets us off on her to discover her birth family and perhaps a little more of herself. When she meets her grandfather, he has one teary-eyed monologue, and then the rest feels like everyone is just dithering around and waiting for instructions on what to do. Grandpa gives TJ taped recordings her mother made with the intention of her daughter to one day listen. I don’t understand why this plot element was not explored far more in depth. This is her direct line of communication with her mother, her ability to hear her voice, listen to her singing, and emotionally connect with a woman who has long since departed her life. I also don’t understand why TJ isn’t interrogating her grandfather non-stop about her mother and father, or even simply bonding with dear old grandad and he her. It feels like right after everyone establishes their identities, the characters are just aimlessly hanging around loitering. In one early scene, it looks like Hannah and her brother are asleep on the couch behind TJ as she talks to grandad for the first time. I was mistaken because Hannah then moves, so she’s not asleep but she looks transparently bored (I’m sorry this family reunion couldn’t be more exciting for you). The writing for the characters keeps their conversations very surface-level. Every person is flat-out telling each other what they feel, who they are, what their personal journeys constitute. It’s a clunky, inauthentic manner of speaking that shows the writer’s too obvious hand.
Another factor that keeps me emotionally distant from the movie is how little it makes use of its near two-hour running time. There are long stretches that resemble a glorified car commercial. TJ, Hannah, and her brother go riding along and the music rises in celebratory volume and then things just keep going from there. With the drone shots of the car passing along a dusty trail, the interior shots of the characters laughing and smiling maniacally, and the attached camera angles to show the wheels flying across the muddy roads, all you’d need is to slap “Life is a Highway” and some ad copy at the bottom and it would be indistinguishable from any glossy car commercial. Why does this bother me? It’s because the movie is unmistakably filling time, dragging out its plot with extended sequences of transportation. There are numerous sequences of people walking from Point A to Point B, especially trouncing through the woods, and rather than see one sequence of a character walking to establish distance, we get four or five. This is all at the expense of storytelling and character, and that’s what I chafe at. Let’s take as another example the best friend character Hannah. In the first 30 minutes, the film establishes her as TJ’s only friend and a supportive outlet, enough so that she agrees to come along when TJ wants to track her out-of-state grandfather. Hannah and her brother spend what appears to be days away from home and I kept wondering what their parents would be doing, whether they would be calling the police, especially since Hannah cannot get cell service. This plot point bothered me for two reasons: 1) why can’t Hannah just travel in the car to reach an area where she has service, and 2) why does Hannah even need to be here at all? At least her brother becomes an underdeveloped romantic interest for TJ. Hannah’s role is inconsequential. And, again, all of these dawdling decisions are at the expense of the dramatic potential of the plot, of a granddaughter learning about her mother and bonding with her grandfather for the first time. Once the movie reunites its characters, it feels so shiftless and waiting for delayed instruction.
From a technical standpoint, The Other Side of Darkness is low-budget but has a nice sheen of professionalism for a $15,000 budget. I have seen movies with ten to twenty times that budget that don’t look as good as this. The cinematography by co-producer Vinny Sisson is crisp and with satisfying visual compositions. The acting is generally competent. Nobody will astound but nobody took me out of the movie with a bad performance. I thought Davis (Chosen, Between the Walls) has a warm and weathered presence that improved the role. Callahan reminded me of Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland, I Still Believe). Billings reminded me of Sarah Yarkin (2022’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I can only imagine what these people could have done with a superior screenplay that allowed them the material and space to really dive into their character dilemmas with nuance and emotional authenticity. The one technical aspect that needed some curtailing is the overzealous musical score by Niklas Wempe. The score is everywhere and never subtle; it is loud, in your face, and trumpeting what is happening onscreen, pushing moments into unintended levels of farce, like people walking through the woods now feel like they must be running for their lives when the reality of the circumstances is nowhere near as urgent. The musical score is so intrusive and old fashioned that it reminded me of 1940s moviemaking.
At almost two hours long, The Other Side of Darkness is a frustrating viewing experience. It’s not the movie it advertises itself as delivering. Just looking at that poster, you might surmise a post-social breakdown thriller like The Trigger Effect, or maybe even a nostalgic 80s adventure like The Goonies. You would be let down by either genre expectation. Sadly, the movie cannot live up to its own dramatic premise of a family reunion between grandfather and granddaughter sharing their common link, a deceased loved one they can relive with the other. It’s bizarre to watch a movie with such potent storytelling elements and seeming so indifferent to them or confused what should be done. This feels like a first draft of a screenplay, where characters are just expositing their direct feelings and desires, unencumbered by subtext. Too often the movie just has its characters milling about, and at two hours in length this is inexcusable. The power outage thriller concept feels almost entirely tacked on to provide more of a marketable angle. It’s shockingly underdeveloped and relatively unimportant in the film’s grand scheme of human drama. Often with first-time filmmakers also dabbling in their screenwriting, I find the stories that would have sufficed as short films expanded into feature-length but not given the attention for the adaptation to succeed. The Other Side of Darkness proves that Deierling has the technical chops to make the most with a micro-budget. I just hope his next feature takes more time to really establish what it wants to be and how best to develop and achieve these goals. The Other Side of Darkness is a little too much in the dark.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Imagine a world where anyone can create a clone, a perfect, or almost perfect, copy of yourself so that after you’re gone your family will never have to theoretically lose you? That’s the premise of Dual, an indie that played at the 2022 Sundance film festival and is now available online. Sarah (Karen Gillan) is generally miserable with her life. She doesn’t return her needy mother’s phone calls and texts. She’d rather watch porn than talk with her distant boyfriend. She’s also leaving disconcerting blood stains on her bed sheets. Turns out Sarah has a rare and incurable illness, and so she is eligible for the Replacement Program, an opportunity to get her own clone. She is gifted a clone (also Gillan), a reported exact replica except for eye color (the company offers a five percent discount for the defect). Sarah takes her doppelganger home and attempts to teach her about her life and how best to fit in. It’s not long that the Sarah clone has her own ideas about what her life could be. However, when Sarah’s terminal diagnosis improves, she intends to abort her clone. The clone triggers a legal clause that says that the ultimate decision over who gets to live as the only Sarah will be a televised duel to the death in exactly one year’s time.
Dual is a puzzling movie. I haven’t watched writer/director Riley Stearn’s other movies, notably 2019’s The Art of Self Defense, though I’ve read Dual is in keeping with his exaggerated, deadpan style, but to me it feels very much like an attempt to recreate a Yorgos Lanthimos world. Lanthimos is most famous for films like The Lobster and was even nominated for Best Director for 2018’s The Favourite. Lanthimos is excellent as creating these worlds that are reflections of our own but detached, deadpan, aloof, and irregular. The world of The Lobster is bizarre as a means of satirizing our social values when it comes to romantic relationships. In that world, if you cannot find a suitable mate within a period of probation, you will be transformed into an animal of your choosing. That world is bizarre in its very inception but there’s a reason that Lanthimos makes use of his stilted, stylized dialogue, to better reflect the absurdities of our culture. With Dual, the world never feels that wholly separate from our own and actually a little under-explored. The fact that society has cloning is woefully underutilized. What else does this mean about our concept of self, identity, legacy? What about clones that abandon their intended families? What about clones that murder their originals before their court-arranged duels? What about people that cheat the system and get more than one clone? What about a clone getting a clone? As the movie progressed, I kept feeling the unmistakable pull of wanting this story to be told straight and without the hip ironic posturing (I suppose that’s Swan Song, a 2021 movie I have yet to watch on Apple Plus). It just felt like there was so much more intriguing dramatic potential to be had here playing things straight, a woman facing her impending mortality, getting a “replacement you” and finding her not sticking to the script, endangering her fragile sense of preservation, and then the crisis of your friends and family preferring the clone over her. That’s some juicy stuff, but it all gets downplayed thanks to Stearn’s selected tone.
It would be one thing if Dual was hilarious with its cracked mirror approach but I just found little to actually laugh about. There are a few moments that I did chuckle, like Sarah and Trent (Aaron Paul) providing a play-by-play of their slow-motion brawl and the consequences of their amassed injuries, and the doctor that informs Sarah about her tragic diagnosis are the most well realized moments with tone (“This is why most doctors are depressed”). The bone dry, matter-of-fact style of speaking is too often the only joke. Just because characters are speaking in a detached manner does not mean you can skip over the same tenets of comedy construction. Lanthimos doesn’t just rest on his characters talking in a manner that is unexpected. There’s genuine work to make them seem of their weird world. The characters in Dual just seem like hyperactive, overly literal irritants. Often, they’ll just keep speaking about a subject and the joke is the length of the details. The Sarah duplicate doesn’t know how to drive, and as she watches her original, she remarks, “Oh, and I suppose you turn the big wheel left and the car goes left. Turn the big wheel right and the car goes right. Easy enough.” I suppose the joke is that she describes two pointless examples? Even the scenes with the doctor, which I laughed at, suffer from Stearns overwriting his dialogue exchanges. It’s not enough for the doctor to make an absurd, Kafkaesque remark, but the character must circle back and underline this over and over. The overall feeling is tiresome. There’s one example of what Dual could have been, where Trent suggests to Sarah during her money problems that she might provide “other means of payment.” The movie then cuts to them both dancing and Trent remarks, “Thank you for the hip-hop dance instruction. I’ve always wanted to learn but was too nervous.” That joke works. It’s a subversion that doesn’t overstay. I wish Stearns had pulled back and trusted his audience to get the joke without his incessant redirection of comic emphasis.
The real reason to watch Dual is for the dueling Gillan performances. She gets to play two same-but-different versions of a character, and she really shines in the subtle differences she takes advantage of. I enjoyed the passive aggression of the clone re-examining the faults of her original, and I enjoyed how quickly she was interrogating her original while making casual, catty judgements. Paul (Breaking Bad) is also enjoyable but only appears in the second half of the movie and is underutilized. Stearns seems drawn to the mentor-pupil relationship dynamic (The Art of Self Defense) and the interaction between Paul and Gillan is a regular highlight of the movie. The actors generally elevate the material even as Stearns restricts the acting tools they can rely upon.
I’m sure there will be viewers that will genuinely enjoy the distaff comedy and pathos of Dual. There’s a clear artistic vision here by Stearns, it just didn’t fully gel for me because I felt the choices of tone and plot limited what could have been a far more emotionally engaging and intellectually fascinating story. The comedy too often settled on being quirky and too often it reminded you of this by circling and re-circling the same joke for diminished returns. Dual is not a bad movie, more a frustrating experience, one with big ideas and talent in front of the camera and behind, but it could have used more shaping and tone calibration to be its best version of itself. As it stands, it’s a fittingly amusing dark comedy with two solid performances from Gillan, and that could be enough for many to justify a 90-minute investment. For me, it felt too much like Lanthimos lite.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I genuinely forgot that I had supported Straitjacket, a new Ohio-made indie thriller filmed in the Dayton area several years hence. I know some people involved in the production and remember seeing a teaser trailer years ago asking for further editing donations. I could not remember if I had actually donated to its post-production costs and sure enough, in the end credits, there is my name under the thanks section for financial assistance. We’ll see if writer/director/co-star/editor Phillip Wiedenheft feels like listing my name was a mistake after this review. Straitjacket is a moderately successful thriller that entertains as long as it keeps things unbalanced.
The first thing we know about Wolf (Wiedenheft) is that he’s getting wasted in the woods. He awakens the next morning and loads a rifle and shoots at glass bottles. Except his shot goes beyond the bottle. He hears screaming and discovers his shot hit an old man walking through the woods. The man’s granddaughter, Lola (KateLynn Newberry), chases after Wolf, who hops into his car and drives away. Wolf is desperate to escape but he doesn’t have enough money for a plane ticket. He also might have left behind more than a few incriminating items in the woods after he quickly ran off. Wolf tries to take refuge with his dealer, the few family and friends who may still speak to him, while Lola languishes in despair and wonders if she can find the killer.
Straitjacket owes a creative debt to the films of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Hold the Dark), the man who worked nervy tension to a breaking point in his elegantly constructed indie thrillers (I immediately re-watched Green Room following this movie too). The tone and visual palate of this movie reminds me plenty of 2013’s Blue Ruin, a superb movie that follows a bearded vagrant on the run after an act of vengeance places a target on his head. It’s a revenge story stripped to the bone and free from the bombastic spectacle of bigger movies exploiting the same territory. The hero in that film, a drifter, wasn’t particularly skilled at killing, or defending himself, and was clumsy and all-too human as he brought a maelstrom of pain onto his life. It’s easy to make these same connections with Straitjacket, where it almost literally begins with a literal bang, a very easy to follow starting point stripped of exposition. Before the five-minute mark, our main character has killed someone in an accident and is now on the run. There’s a pleasingly frantic nature to the plotting, going from one desperate gamble to another, trying to figure out a possible escape as well as covering up his culpability. Wolf, just like the protagonist of Blue Ruin, is not particularly excelled when it comes to crime. He screws up. He has to correct his mistakes. He gets into debt to people who hold leverage over him. He has to scrounge up money in order to secure the things he needs to flee. The screenplay connects the dots in a way that doesn’t feel overly contrived even when the final act involves the ironic crossing of paths of all the necessary characters. That is a common occurrence in tragedy, the nature of inescapable fate and so we allow it, and Straitjacket is a tragedy disguised as a runaway thriller. If anything, it’s about people trying to escape from their mental and physical pain.
At the half-hour mark, the narrative switches perspectives, and we now see things from the victim’s point of view. In the hours before the fatal accident, we see Lola and her grandfather going about their day before he is taken permanently from this Earth. They discuss her process of recovering from addiction and share a small but heartfelt moment planting a tree mingled with the ashes of loved ones, Lola’s mother and grandmother (I think?). The old man says Lola is the only family he has left and he doesn’t want to come out here and plant another tree. Just with that line, with that moment, the filmmakers have managed to say everything they need to say in a meaningful and character-centric fashion. From there, much of the next half hour is Lola trying to make sense of her sudden loss. I thought perhaps the narrative had flipped and we were going to follow Lola as she tracked down Wolf and enact her own vengeance, but the movie doesn’t really do that either. She stumbles upon him again just because he returns to the scene of the crime and she recognizes his car, but her agency stops at calling for help from an ex. That’s disappointing because she could have been the right participant for the audience to root for.
And therein lies one of the issues holding back Straitjacket from real gut-churning dramatic greatness, the fact that you don’t really root for any character to achieve his or her goal. While streamlining the narrative has made the plot relatively tight and quick to start, we also don’t really get much in the way of fleshing out Wolf as a person. We know he’s self-destructive, we know he’s struggling, and a caravan of interactions with minor supporting players fill us in on the myriad ways he is disappointing others (he has a son he never sees, he’s stolen from family before, he’s gotten into trouble with his dealer, etc.). He’s just sort of a screw-up but we aren’t given redeeming qualities, we aren’t given moments that allow a personality to shine through, where we can see his hopes, maybe a glimmer of his time and who he was before his addictions. He’s less a character and more a walking Tragic Symbol with antsy legs. The same with Lola. She’s suffering, she’s hurting, she wants to find her grandfather’s killer and bring them to justice. But does she do anything to actively achieve this? Not really. She lucks into attending the same drug house that Wolf does, and this sets up a finale that tries to have it both ways, ultimately ending on redemption and closure but not quite managing the catharsis of either. That’s because the limited characterization made the later emotional investment limited as well.
Take a look at Blue Ruin for comparison on how it could have been done effectively. It’s established why the main character’s life has been in shambles, he finds the person responsible for murdering his parents, takes his clumsy vengeance, and the rest of the movie is him outrunning the mounting and bloody repercussions. That movie works because the act of violence that kicks off the scramble is eventually revealed to be justifiable from the character’s perspective (his own sister, whom he initially hides with, congratulates him). He’s also the underdog as the forces coming after him are armed, dangerous, and larger, so then the movie becomes how this one man can use his few resources and lead time to outsmart his eventual attackers. It becomes naturally engaging because the odds are stacked against him and every time he surprises or beats them back is another victory and satisfying to watch. Straitjacket doesn’t afford similar satisfaction for a viewer. That’s the difference between a thriller and a tragedy, not that Blue Ruin was absent its own stark sense of tragedy as revenge was deemed ultimately as self-harm. There isn’t that push with Straitjacket. Lola isn’t actively looking for her culprit, and her path toward vengeance isn’t taking a toll. Sure, you could argue it’s what causes her to consider relapsing back to addictions but even that struggle is kept very generalized.
When the movie attempts to connect to larger social and political issues, it feels more grasping than edifying. Both of the main characters are struggling with drug addictions, and there’s even passing reference to the opioid crisis happening nationwide, but the drug problems are more scant characterization than anything thematic. I suppose one could be generous and talk about people being haunted by their past mistakes, enthralled to addiction, and working to become better people in control of their own lives, but that’s a generic plot foundation that any nominal drug addiction movie traffics within. Likewise, the Army vet who is coping with his PTSD through drug addiction seems like it has the potential to make larger statements, but even this aspect of the movie is curiously underplayed. I thought the filmmakers would tie more trauma together with the past and present for Wolf, even indulging in certain triggering sounds or images. I suppose Straitjacket’s title is meant to reference the bind that these characters find themselves in due to drugs and other socioeconomic circumstances (no one literally wears a straitjacket). I just thought the movie would have more to say than drug addiction is rough.
I also think it was a mistake for Wiedenheft to have played Wolf. I don’t know if this decision was born out of necessity of keeping the crew small and moving, not having to contort around another actor’s schedule when the writer/director could just step in, or if this was a part that Wiedenheft really wanted to portray. I assume it’s more the former than the latter. In that case, this might be why Wiedenheft the writer kept things minimal on Wiedenheft the actor. There are a few challenging scenes to play, like drug highs and the lows of desperation, but the performance is much more reactive and kept at a distance. Maybe he’s meant to be more a cypher, a stand-in for countless others struggling with the cost of addiction, but if this was the case I figure more attention and specifics would have been placed thematically.
The acting shortcomings of Wiedenheft are more noticeable when compared to his co-lead. Newberry is a familiar face in the realm of Ohio-made indies (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet, Dark Iris, The Wager) and gets the big emotional moments. Newberry sells the grief and shock with ease. A notable standout is JoAnna Lloyd (Brimstone Saint) as a park ranger. She’s only in the movie for two brief scenes but she leaves a favorable impression as a woman struggling to even compute the tragic events that she is now meant to serve as an authority for. Her loss of words, awkward articulation, and sense of bewilderment trying to comfort another is deftly played.
From a technical standpoint, Straitjacket is marvelous and impressive, and the level of its professional presentation in no way betrays the fact that the movie’s budget was only $15,000. The cinematography is extremely polished and moody, again reminding me of how Sauliner uses his sleek images and compositions to make even unnerving anxiety appear oddly beautiful. There’s a clear and clean visual talent here. I can see how a thriller would be appealing for this artist. When things are on edge and in movement, that’s when Wiedenheft is at his best as a director. It’s when things slow down that we start to see faults with the limited characterization and themes. Still, this is one Ohio-made indie that doesn’t feel like it’s stretching to a breaking point simply to get to a feature-length running time. There feels like even more could have been explored, maybe a third character perspective to open things up even more and examine the long ripples one devastating mistake can have on many lives. It’s tragedy served up as chase movie, but when things slow down that’s when you’ll notice how Straitjacket could have used more knots to tie itself into an even more tantalizing and emotionally grueling film experience.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Matt Reeves is a director who has found a way to inject soul into blockbuster movie-making, notably shepherding the last two films of the revived Planet of the Apes series. Who would have guessed at the turn of the twenty-first century that the two co-creators of Felicity would go on to helm such monumental properties like Star Wars and Batman? Reeves has reliably proven himself on increasingly bigger stages, and that’s why I held out hope that yet another Batman reboot would be worth the effort under his care. Let’s face it, dear reader, we’re probably never going to be more than three or four years removed from some kind of Batman movie, whether a continuation or another reboot. If we are going back to the Bat basics, I trust giving the franchise over to exciting artists like Reeves. I was hoping for a Ben Affleck-directed Batman after he slipped into the cowl in 2014, but it was not to be even though he was the best part of the Zack Snyder run. After multiple production delays, we now have The Batman, and it’s the next big box-office hope for desperate movie theaters until the oasis of summer releases (some are even charging a heftier ticket price, so consider it a blockbuster tax). As a slick comic book spectacle, The Batman is a three-course meal that could have sensibly pushed away earlier. You’ll feel satisfied, full, a little addled, but if dank serial killer thrillers are your thing, you’ll definitely be hungry for more even after nearly three hours of Reeves’ deep danky dive.
Gotham City is on the verge of a new mayoral election, and it’s also on the verge of a killing spree. A masked man identifying himself as the Riddler (Paul Dano) is targeting the elites of the city with cryptic notes addressed specifically toward “The Batman” (Robert Pattinson), the newfound vigilante trying to instill fear in the hearts of would-be criminals. The key ends up being Selena Kyle (Zoe Kravtiz), a waitress at Gotham’s grungy club that also happens to be a popular market for the big crime bosses. Batman enlists the help of Selena to put together the clues to predict the Riddler’s next target and to uncover decades of corruption infesting the city.
The Batman exists in a specific cinematic universe far more in common with the rain-soaked, gritty serial killer thrillers of David Fincher than anything from the previous DC movie universe. This is a pulpy, stylized movie that feels akin to Seven or Zodiac, and not just in its protracted length. It’s a methodical movie that takes its sweet time dwelling in the decrepit details. The plot is very similar to the serial killer formula of finding that first alarming murder and clue, leading to the next, learning more from each additional target to try and discern a pattern of connectivity, and finally learning that the grand scheme goes deeper than imagined, and is usually personal. It’s more based as a detective procedural than any previous Batman incarnation, including missions where the Dark Knight goes undercover or enlists others to gather intel for his investigation. If you’re the kind of person that’s been dreaming of the quote-unquote world’s greatest detective to do more sleuthing and less typing at magic computers, then your time has come. This is a very dark and very serious movie, though it doesn’t feel too suffocating. Fun can still be had but on its own terms, satisfaction from building momentum, seeing how this world incorporates familiar faces and Batman elements, and deepening the lore of this city’s complicated history. Nobody is going to be making any “I gotta get me one of these” quips. It’s hard to even remember a time Batman had nipples on his chest plate and a Bat credit card.
This is also the first Batman where I can vividly feel the anger resonating from its title character. In this new timeline, we’ve thankfully skipped the origin period (and even more thankfully skipped watching Bruce’s parents die on screen for the sixteenth time or so), and we’re now two years into Batman being Batman. He’s still figuring things out but his effect is evident. Reeves has a terrific introduction of various acts of crime across the city and cross-cutting the criminals staring at the Bat signal in the sky and then nervously looking at a corridor of shadow, fearful that the caped crusader could emerge at any moment. When he does finally arrive, this Batman walks with such heavy plodding steps for dramatic effect (and reminiscent of some Goth club kid). This version of Batman relishes delivering pain. He wallops his opponents with abandon, and the intensity of the physical performance from Pattinson really impresses. This is Batman as a rampaging bull, leaning into fights, and also carelessly blase about enduring damage. You will watch Batman get shot dozens of times and he just keeps fighting, so overcome in the moment with the drive of his own violent vigor. Bruce Wayne hasn’t exactly been portrayed as a stable and well-adjusted man in the other movies, but this is the first Batman that made me a little scared about what he might do to others and how cavalier he was taking all this damage.
On that note, Pattinson proves himself more than capable of shouldering the weight of the franchise. Upon news of the former Twilight star’s casting, fan reaction across the Internet was apoplectic and rotten, ignoring the fact that Pattinson has gone the 90s Johnny Depp route and purposely leveraged his good looks to work with an eclectic group of filmmakers and odd roles (see Good Time, The Lighthouse, and The Rover). Pattinson has become a very interesting young actor, and it’s funny to me that ten years after the release of the final Twilight, we have one half of the undead couple playing Batman and the other half nominated for Best Actress for portraying Princess Diana. I would say they’ve proven themselves as legit thespians. Anyway, the Batman franchise has a long history of negative fan reaction to casting, from Affleck to Heath Ledger to even Michael Keaton, that is then rescinded upon seeing the movie, and I expect the same to occur for Pattinson. He actually plays Bruce Wayne something like an atrophied vampire, barely keeping the visage because the costume is the real him. Although, if this is a Batman who prioritizes the night, I think if I was a criminal, I would just start planning on committing all my many crimes during daylight hours (strictly keeping to banking hours).
The supporting cast is as deep and as talented as the Nolan films. Several villainous characters are in their early stages of our conceptions. Kravitz (Kimi) is the real breakout star. While she cannot supplant Michelle Pfeiffer as the top Catwoman, Kravitz makes the role her own. Selena is more a socially conscious antihero trying to fight back against bad men in power abusing that power. Her own goal aligns with Batman’s, and the two become intertwined allies with a clear romantic frisson emerging. This is a Catwoman I would like to see again. Dano (Swiss Army Man) is effortlessly creepy as the morally righteous and unhinged Riddler, more akin to Zodiac or Jigsaw than Jim Carrey’s wacky version. He’s menacing and the tricks he does with his voice are unnerving, except, however, when his voice hits higher pitches and then he sounds like a whiny child needing to go to his room. Colin Farrel (The Gentlemen) is nearly unrecognizable under pounds of makeup that make him resemble a disfigured Richard Karn (one wonders why the movie didn’t just hire Richard Karn himself) and he’s having a ball. Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) has a weary gravitas as a younger Jim Gordon, the only ally on the police force for Batman. Andy Serkis is a welcome presence as the dutiful Alfred, the last familial bond Bruce has, though he spends most of the time off-screen probably due to Serkis directing 2021’s Venom 2.
Reeves might not have the signature Gothic opulence of a Burton, the visual flair of a Snyder, or the zeitgeist-tapping instincts of a Nolan, but he is a supremely talented big screen stylist. There is a deeply felt tactile nature to this movie, from the streets to the alleys to the homes. It feels wonderfully alive and especially dirty. The entire movie feels like it has a visual pal over it, favoring burnt orange, and the cinematography by Greig Fraser (Dune) is ornate and often mesmerizing, begging you to just immerse yourself in the details and compositions. The influence of Fincher is all over this movie, but there are far worse auteurs to model after than the man who elevated serial killer thrillers to high art. I appreciate how Reeves stages many of his bouts of action, including one sequence of Batman taking out a group of gunmen glimpsed only from the staccato flashes of muzzle fire. Reeves is a first-class showman when it comes to introductions. I mentioned Batman’s introduction, but Reeves also delivers splashy entrances for Catwoman, the Riddler, and even the Batmobile, which comes to monstrous life like a kaiju being awakened. The explosive car chase with that marauding muscle car is the action high-point. The movie is further elevated by Michael Giacchino’s pounding musical score. It’s not an instantly iconic Danny Elfman theme but it is stirring in how thunderous it announces itself.
I wasn’t feeling the length of the movie until its third hour, and that’s where my friend Eric Muller cites that The Batman is suffering from a Return of the King-level of false endings. Just when you think it’s wrapping up, there’s something else, and just when you think it’s now finally coming to a close, it’s got another sequence and attached resolution. It’s during this final third hour that I feel like the movie could have been trimmed back. While it ends on a high note and brings characters to the end of their arcs in a clear fashion, part of me really feels like a bleaker ending would have been appropriate for the rest of the movie we had. I won’t specify for the sake of spoilers but you’ll know it when it happens, and it could have ended on a note of the villain more or less winning the larger war on their own terms. It has such a power to it, tying elements together that had been carefully kept as background for so long as to be forgotten only to bring them back to assert the full power of an insidious virus. I think the movie would have been a more fitting ending on this dreary note, with our heroes having lost, but of course the studio wouldn’t want its $200 tentpole to end with its main star bested by pessimism. Again, this is merely my own personal preference, but after two-plus hours of rainy gloom and doom, it feels more fitting to end on a dour note (also akin to Seven or Zodiac) than on inspiring triumph.
This is also perhaps one of the most disturbing PG-13 movies. I might caution parents about taking younger children to watch. The mood of this movie is very dark and somber and the details of the Riddler’s acts of terror can be very horrific to contemplate. There are also intense moments like listening to a woman being strangled to death, twice. It all started making me think maybe Reeves and company could have pulled back and left more to the imagination. I’m not saying the movie’s tone is inappropriate for the material, it just occasionally luxuriates in the grimy details and pitched terror and trauma of its victims that can be unsettling and unnecessary.
Even with the heaviest expectations from the hardest of fans, The Batman is an unqualified success. It’s not in the same category of Nolan’s best but the ambition and execution place Reeves only just outside that hallowed sphere of blockbuster showmanship. It also hurts that The Batman lacks an exciting anchor that can break through the pop-culture clutter, like a dynamic and ultimately Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger or Joaquin Phoenix. It almost feels like a Batman miniseries that you might want to continue tuning into (Reeves is developing a few Batman-related projects for HBO Max). Overall, The Batman is an exciting and intelligent blockbuster with style, mood, and a clear sense of purpose. Reeves remains an excellent caretaker of any pop-culture property and proves big movies can still have souls.
Nate’s Grade: B+
What are we doing here? This new Netflix Texas Chainsaw Massacre is part reboot and part distant sequel to the 1974 original, even bringing back sole survivor Sally Hardesty to get her very grizzled Jamie Lee Curtis-in-Halloween 2018 vengeance. There are a lot of bad sequels and remakes in this franchise’s history, blinked out of existence here with this ret-con, so keep your expectations pretty low. This is a 75-minute movie with a wisp of a plot, so much so that it doesn’t even wait until the twenty-minute mark for the conveyor belt of carnage to begin. I suppose that can be a virtue for genre audiences. This is a decidedly gory and crunchy horror movie, gleefully splashing in entrails and jump scares rather than taking the time to develop something more. If we’re upholding the original’s timeline, then this Leatherface is in his mid-seventies. We need fun slasher movies too (I enjoyed the fifth Scream), but this one just feels spiteful and creatively hollow. I don’t really even understand the premise, that a group of political activists are literally buying or auctioning a ghost town to turn it into a gentrified, liberal mecca in the Texas desert. Young liberals are removing racist Texans from their homes and Fyre Fest-chasing Zoomers are invading? What? Then there’s our Final Girl who herself is the survivor of a school shooting and working through her trauma, and flashbacks, to regain her control by literally learning to arm herself. Oh no. Elise Fisher (Eighth Grade), you deserve so much better. It’s fast-paced. It’s exceedingly bloody. It’s over quickly. I guess there are ways this new Texas Chainsaw Massacre could have been worse but there’s even more ways it could have been better.
Nate’s Grade: C
Part COVID character study, part Blow Out murder conspiracy, and part corporate thriller, Kimi is a lean 90-minute thriller that doesn’t overstay its welcome even as it’s constantly morphing. Kimi is the Siri./Alexa-esque personal A.I. assistant device found in millions of consumer homes. Angela (Zoe Kravitz) is an agoraphobic Seattle tech worker who clears the Kimi user problems, and one day she overhears a recording of a woman being murdered, the same woman who accuses the Kimi CEO of assault. The first half of the movie is establishing the crippling anxiety and welcomed routines for Angela as well as the geography of her home, a point that will be more important in the final act. Kravitz is good but too much time is spent analyzing the captured audio and getting her ready to leave. From there, she ventures outside to report the crime, and that’s when powerful people try and abduct or kill her. The movie is brisk and has a constant nervous energy to it, never better than when Angela meets with her shady corporate HR rep (Rita Wilson). However, these killer corporate goons committing don’t seem as scary efficient like in Michael Clayton, so mundanely proficient at ending lives. These guys are more bumbling goons, which takes some of the threat away, though I still relished Angela getting the better of her attackers. For so much buildup about Angela’s terror of the outside world, I was expecting more obstacles relating to her personal agoraphobic fears, but these concerns are dropped too easily once she’s running away from scary bad guys. It’s a thriller that doesn’t exactly transcend its influences and inspirations, but there should still be room for well-made, derivative B-movie thrillers that still know how to entertain. Director Steven Soderbergh and writer David Koepp are genre veterans so even a lesser effort will be effortlessly better than most. Kimi is a narrow but enjoyable thriller that had some room for improvement but still satisfies.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s easy to see the appeal of contained thrillers from a production standpoint, but I’ve always found them to be a fun, crafty thought exercise that I’ve often enjoyed playing along. I’ll rename them “survival thrillers” because I think that’s truer to what they encounter, whether it’s in a small, contained environment or whether they are simply a victim of unique circumstances. I enjoy watching a character analyze and attack a problem and find workable solutions. There’s a natural vehicle for satisfaction there, whether it’s Matt Damon learning how to farm on Mars, or Ryan Reynolds being buried alive in a coffin, or a group of teenagers stuck on a ski lift. It’s a fun scenario to try and solve, especially in the relative comfort of your own home. Given their success and general low-cost nature, it was only a matter of time before these kinds of thrillers would dominate indie direct-to-streaming cinema. I guess then I shouldn’t be that surprised the Christian movie market would want in too. Shut In is the first original film distributed by The Daily Wire, the subscription run by conservative political wunderkind Ben “debate me!” Shapiro. Shut In began as a 2019 Black List script, the list of the most liked unproduced screenplays, and at one point Jason Bateman was going to direct. From there, it’s now Ben Shapiro’s Godsploitation thriller, and it has its own virtues and sins.
Jessica Nash (Rainey Qualley) is doing her best with some of the worst circumstances. She’s got two young children, one still an infant, and scraping by for money. She’s a recovering meth addict and has inherited her grandmother’s home that she’s looking to sell. As she’s cleaning up the premises, she accidentally locks herself inside a pantry. Making matters worse is that her meth-addict ex-boyfriend Rob (Jake Horrowitz) and his no-good pedophile pal Sammy (Vincent Gallo) come around looking for a score. Jessica must use her wits, strength, and fortitude to escape the pantry, keep the dangerous men away from her children, and also reject the temptation of indulging in drugs as an escape for her mounting troubles.
From the vantage point of a survival thriller, Shut In makes more under its circumstances that I would have assumed but also, strangely, less with the personal stakes. Whenever developing a problem-solution story structure, you need to make sure the dots connect and there’s a natural progression of events. You’re stuck in a room, now what? Jessica benefits because she has a helper on the outside; however, that person is only a young child, and therefore unreliable and unable to firmly grasp multi-step instructions. This also allowed me to channel the main character’s frustrations as well, especially when she was asking her kid to find things like tools to better claw away at the door and floor. This gives her an outlet but another challenge as well because the child becomes a point of vulnerability. When Sammy comes back into the picture, his presence is immediately the priority, and Jessica needs to neutralize him or make sure he cannot reach her daughter on the other side of the door. Screenwriter Melanie Toast seems to understand that the predicament she devises runs into natural end points, so she throws in extra escalations, which then become the next challenge. It’s self-aware scripting, but it also runs the risk of the challenges feeling not as challenging and the movie feeling more episodic.
The most confounding plot point was how underplayed the drug addiction angle is. It’s part of her overall tragic past, and the movie hints about past sexual trauma as well to further haunt our lead’s dark “before time,” but we don’t ever really feel her trouble with staying clean. It’s more like the drugs represent her former life, the one with her ex who is still in the thrall of meth. We could have used maybe even a monologue of Jessica talking about the pull of drugs, how important they were to her before, and how she never liked the persons he was, perhaps the shame she feels for the things she had down previously for drugs, and her intent at redemption, all to the audience of the child she’s meaning to do better by. There’s an entire character arc worth of detail that can be unleashed to really provide better depth. When her ex tosses his three grams of meth into the pantry, it’s meant to be a significant temptation, but the movie never really plays this as a sufficient challenge. It would be as if the guy just tossed in a small packet of laundry powder for how much personal attention it’s given. There was a short moment where it looks like, with all hope lost, that Jessica might succumb, but for the far, far majority of the running time, this drug temptation is underplayed. If this Jessica wasn’t going to struggle over using drugs again, why not just have her toss them down the sink? It’s a curious mitigated plot point for something that seems more significant than presented.
This is also directed by D.J. Caruso, a man who was making big-budget Hollywood action movies in the early 2010s like Eagle Eye and I Am Number Four. This is likely the lowest budget Caruso has ever worked with, but he doesn’t make the movie feel visually dull. There’s way too much imagery with apples though, including apples rotting at their core (you get it?) and eventually Jessica peeling the brown from an apple and saying the rest is still plenty good (you get it?). It feels like the apple was a lazy visual symbol meant to appeal to its, presumably, more Christian-affiliated target audience (“You see, the apple… means… temptation”). The tension can be finely attuned especially when we’re trapped in the pantry with Jessica and having to rely upon the sound design to understand the looming threats. I wish Caruso had pulled back at more points. Later, Sammy holds Jessica’s kid hostage with a knife to her little throat, promising to kill her, while everyone is screaming so loudly that it almost feels like we’ve landed in farce. The exploitation thriller elements feel in conflict with the lighter Christian elements. The God parts feel almost tacked on, especially when Jessica doesn’t reveal anything about her own faith. Looking at a hanging cross and deciding not to do drugs does not count as sufficient integration.
This is also Vincent Gallo’s first film role in ten years. for a period in the late 1990s, Gallo was the toast of the indie film scene and then he burnt through all that collective good will (also credit The Brown Bunny making people question those earlier accolades). I’ll credit Gallo acting like a believable creep and a snarling threat. He’s the best actor in the movie, and he delivers enough in this do-nothing part that makes me wish he would act more often. Qualley (sister to Margaret Qualley, also the daughter of Andie MacDowell) is fine, though her Southern accent seems to get the better of her at parts. Her performance is more physical than emotional.
Shut In is a small movie likely intended for a small audience while it drafts off the genre formula of larger, more polished survival thrillers. It goes through stretches where it relatively works, stripped down to its bare genre essentials, and then moments where I wish more was going on viscerally and intellectually. That’s where the movie needed to open up its protagonist more substantially, give more consideration to her internal struggles rather than keeping everything strictly externalized. Her drug addiction and the immediate proximity of drugs needed to be much more a trial of will. If you’re stuck with characters in a confined space, you need to either use that time to make the character more intriguing and compelling or keep the obstacles coming. Shut In transitions with new obstacles to overcome, but it still doesn’t feel like enough for this 89-minute movie. It’s an acceptable genre entry but had more potential with its lead character and with its thrills. It settles too often, and there’s nothing godly about settling when you could have been an even mightier movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+