Nacho Vigalondo's inventive and entertaining 'Open Windows' collapses under its own weight
Open Windows Cinedigm
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Screenplay: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sasha Grey, Neil Maskell, Adam Quintero and Daniel Pérez Prada
Not rated / 1 hour, 40 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
The thing about clever people is that they have a tendency to out-clever themselves. This is the big takeaway from Open Windows, a terrifically inventive movie that ultimately falls apart, from writer/director Nacho Vigalondo, a filmmaker who makes terrifically inventive movies that always fall apart. He's made a nasty habit of it, and yet it's only too easy to admire what he's building even as it's crumbling.
(Incidentally, I think his best feature is 2012's Extraterrestrial, which happens to be his most stripped-down.)
What he's accomplished here, without the pretext of any sort of grand statement on How We Live Now, is a thorough reflection of modern communication and surveillance, all in the guise of a lurid stalking-turned-abduction thriller. We're presented with a constantly evolving interface of overlapping frames and competing points of focus, creating what is essentially a multi-screen effect within single compositions. At any given moment we might be looking at a half-dozen (or more) separate windows, all contained within a single computer screen, which is contained within the purview of a more omniscient camera (or two), which in turn is contained within the film's own 1.85:1 structure.
In fact, you could say this is a largely unframed movie, its "frame" more like an open workspace, a container for its various visual fields. (Though the styles are vastly different, I was reminded of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with its fluid aspect ratios and experiments with various split-screens and paneled imagery.)
Vigalondo exploits every type of modern technological portal he can incorporate, constructing an entire narrative out of cell phone cameras, webcams, hidden cameras, security cameras, digital camcorders, dashboard cameras, TV cameras, various non-visual signals and computer displays filled with windows of data, photographs and written conversations.
As the film moves along, he gets even more elaborate, piecing together rough composites made up of varying criss-crossing signals to essentially create a cubist simulacrum of characters or even entire environments. These are Vigalondo's most interesting experiments (in a movie full of them), particularly in the way the images increasingly occupy mostly digital space even as the plot shifts the action more into the real world.
While the film's aesthetic choices remain ideologically consistent throughout, the canvas gets broader as things move along. It begins, innocently enough, with a guy in front of his computer in an otherwise empty hotel room. His name is Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood), and he runs a fan website dedicated to the movie star Jill Goddard, played by Sasha Grey. He's just flown into Austin, having won a contest to have dinner with Goddard on the cusp of the release of her latest film.
Just after submitting the personal introduction video required for his grand prize, he's contacted by a man named "Chord," who claims to represent the website that's running the contest and delivers to Nick the disappointing news that Ms. Goddard has canceled the dinner at the last minute.
As if he's doing Nick a favor - or offering him a chance at retribution - Chord (Neil Maskell) begins to reveal a lot more about Jill Goddard than Nick ever asked for. He's able to fully access her phone, her computer and even the security networks at both her home and her boyfriend's hotel. He has elaborate plans about how he intends to use this information - plans he'll let Nick in on, but only on a need-to-know basis.
Open Windows is the second thriller of this year in which Elijah Wood takes instructions from a disembodied voice (the other being the superior Grand Piano). He's gotten pretty good at handling suspenseful or scary moments almost entirely by himself. In this case, his character gets some unexpected assistance from an underground trio of French hackers known as the Triops, who have mistaken Nick for "Nevada," a legendary hacker with whom the Triops came into contact months earlier. As the stakes escalate, the film balances several disconnected pieces of the story at once - the ongoing dialogue between Nick and Chord, the secret discussions between Nick and the Triops (of whom Chord is unaware), and the presence of Jill Goddard herself, the unwitting centerpiece of whatever master plan is slowly revealing itself.
But as well-conceived as it all is, the film eventually starts to unravel, its twists serving more to distract from its bold cinematic qualities than add curiosity or depth to the story. The turns it takes only expose how thin it was in the first place - a fact that had been deftly hidden by the filmmaking for the first two acts or so.
Of course there are other noticeable, if less significant, problems. While there's an interesting meta subtext to the casting of Sasha Grey as the object of digital voyeurism and obsession - given that she has been accessed specifically through digital channels as much as anyone, and is probably high on the list of the most downloaded figures on the planet - her acting in Open Windows is dreadful. The performance comes across as apathetic and completely devoid of energy (especially in scenes that absolutely require it); her line readings are mechanical and she is not emotionally convincing in the slightest.
Then again, I don't think a better actor could have salvaged the mess the story becomes, nor does her bad performance undo all that's impressive about the movie. A lot of tech thrillers seem almost immediately obsolete because they try to warn or predict rather than reflect and interpret. Open Windows doesn't fall into that trap; it is nothing if not expressionistic about the way it embraces the visual noise and practical implications of the Internet age. It falters primarily when it decides its aesthetics aren't enough, and the twists and turns finally undo it.