On shifting genres, supernatural security, and bank robberies past and present
The Vault FilmRise
Director: Dan Bush
Screenplay: Dan Bush and Conal Byrne
Starring: Francesca Eastwood, Taryn Manning, James Franco, Scott Haze, Clifton Collins Jr, Q'orianka Kilcher and Keith Loneker
Rated R / 1 hour, 31 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
If you stumbled across The Vault on TV sometime, it would take your brain no time at all to process it. It would be so instantly recognizable, and blend in so seamlessly with your every expectation of its particular genre, that you'd absorb it practically without realizing. Like, say, catching a hockey game out of the corner of your eye. Before you even turn your head or figure out who's playing, you know damn well what's on that screen.
Out of the same corner of your eye you eye The Vault, and the recognition is just as instantaneous, just as involuntary. Yeah, it's a heist movie. Bunch of people ripping off a bank. Masks, wigs. Get on the ground, don't touch that alarm, do what we say and no one gets hurt. Y'know, a heist movie. And The Vault gains this instant recognition because it is so immaculately generic about it. There is going through the motions of a genre, and then there is the first 30 minutes of this movie. So that's what it is - a deeply ordinary bank-robbery flick.
Until, all of a sudden, it's not. Until, all of a sudden, it's a supernatural horror film. I almost feel bad even mentioning that - as if a movie's true genre constitutes a spoiler of some kind. But if it hadn't advertised itself as horror - if it weren't listed as horror in every VOD service's listings - there would have been nary a hint that this was anything but a straightforward, real-world crime thriller. And by "nary" I mean one hint - exactly one - during a diversion of a job interview at the bank, in which the manager claims the branch's high turnover rate is on account of odd noises emanating from the creaky old building. In most circumstances - or with no advance warning of the film's eventual direction - you'd think nothing of it.
My natural inclination is to commend the audacity - the stylistic left turn, if not the film itself. Upending expectations in such a large way - one type of movie suddenly becoming a completely different type of movie - is a fascinating move to pull, and one, to my mind, with too much untapped potential. (The best example I can recall off the top of my head is the late Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, whose radical shift in tone is handled so elegantly as to be nonchalant. But that movie never rewrites the basic rules of its reality.) But the result, with The Vault, is that an utterly undistinguished heist movie turns into a mostly undistinguished horror movie, whose main point of interest is that it's a horror movie at all.
It also finds a rare niche in the directory of haunted places. We've had plenty of haunted houses and haunted hotels; haunted trains, haunted planes, haunted islands, haunted ships. But a haunted bank? I'm listening.
At the very least, it's a unique form of security against would-be thieves. So unique, in fact, that I'm gonna have to put the blame on the bank manager for not advertising this feature more openly. Instead of an ADT sign on the lawn and a couple of stickers in the windows, how about a sign that says, "If you try to rob our vault, the dead souls from a previous, ill-fated heist will straight-up murder you"? All I know is, if I'm looking for a place to put my money, a bank that uses supernatural forces to eliminate anyone who tries to lay a hand on it has earned my trust. You've got a loyal customer.
It certainly would have kept the Dillon siblings out of trouble. Surely, if they'd known what was in store for them, they'd have tried to rob a different bank. Instead, the hardened, volatile Vee (Taryn Manning) and her anime-eyed sister Leah (Francesca Eastwood) wound up at this one, when all they were trying to do was help their brother Michael (Scott Haze) out of a life-and-death jam. No violence, they keep insisting. They just need the money. This was supposed to be a good deed.
Good luck telling that to the dead souls of a failed heist from 35 years earlier, lying in wait in the secret vault in the abandoned basement spoken of only in whispers by bank management. The vault on the main floor is practically empty - at least by the expectations of would-be professional thieves - but, Assistant Bank Manager James Franco proposes, they can get what they want down below. In the old vault. That's where the big bucks are. When things start to go mysteriously awry - lights flickering, masked figures appearing, the usual ghostly tricks - Mgr. Franco's face divulges nothing. We expect he knows there's something down there, but we don't know they know he knows, nor do we know exactly how much he knows. The five robbers - they brought along two additional friends, for muscle - disperse, all finding themselves in different corners of the bank (some above ground, some below), connected only by walkie-talkies and surveillance cameras that may or may not be reliable. Meanwhile, Officer Clifton Collins Jr. is on to the robbery, and is outside trying to make contact and get out as many hostages as he can.
But while director Dan Bush - who co-wrote the script with his regular writing partner Conal Byrne - dutifully attempts to blend one genre into another, he has a command of neither. The Vault is a pedestrian (at best) heist flick - nothing but straightforward images that fail to get across either the geographical tension of this (or any) heist scenario, or the power dynamics at play within it - that evolves into a pedestrian horror movie. (A boring and uneventful one, at that.) Bush's occasionally arresting images never linger. A film in which the dead disrupt the carefully laid plans of the living forges no connection between the present and the past.