Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2018

Unfriended: Dark Web

Framed within frames

On moving past found-footage, the surprising versatility of single-screen cinema, and the forthcoming My Skype with Andre

Unfriended: Dark Web
Universal Pictures
Director: Stephen Susco
Screenplay: Stephen Susco
Starring: Colin Woodell, Betty Gabriel, Stephanie Nogueras, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Connor Del Rio, Andrew Lees, Savira Windyani and Douglas Tait
Rated R / 1 hour, 32 minutes / 1.78:1
July 20, 2018
(out of four)

Whatever we end up calling this - the single-screen, multi-window thrillers like Unfriended and its sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web (desktop cinema? screencast cinema?) - it has a chance to do what found-footage, its stylistic predecessor, never could.

Strike that, it already has. While many would consider this merely an offshoot of found-footage, the distinction between how the two formats operate is key. The implicit promises of found-footage were seldom fulfilled - the style primarily being used as a lazy (but frugal!) crutch instead of a governing language, the creative challenge of its built-in limitation being largely ignored or circumvented. Only rarely has the format been organic to the story being told.

But while most of those efforts have failed, the Unfriended movies succeed precisely because the visual environment is inseparable from the events taking place within it. This is, for all intents and purposes, shot on location. The PC interface - with its open browsers, chat windows, Skype conversations, file folders - is the movie. Everything relies on it. It's the premise, it's the setting, it's the point-of-view, it's the action, it's every piece of evidence, it's every character. If we stepped away from that screen, we'd be in an entirely different movie. Dark Web, like its predecessor, is actually less similar to found footage and closer in aesthetic spirit to Lady in the Lake or Maniac, but with a single-location setup analogous to Rear Window, Buried or Locke.

A casual group video chat finds itself quite unsuspectingly used as leverage in a very deep, very nasty, very underground criminal network. Just our luck, it's our own proxy who's the complicit party. He picked the wrong laptop to swipe. The contents of this particular hard drive going missing is not the sort of thing that would go unnoticed. And so we bear witness as Matias (Colin Woodell) gets himself, and his circle of friends, in far too deep. As fellow witnesses and unwitting participants, as pawns and targets, as dramatic examples that someone - somewhere - means business.

That single screen - and the piece of hardware it's attached to - is our access point to every corner of the narrative. Every piece of information, every choice, every reaction, every detail, peripheral or otherwise. We just have to look and listen. More specifically, Dark Web openly invites us - even requires us - to look and listen. Intently. Which is no small thing. Part built-in advantage, part savvy understanding of the format's possibilities, one of the ways the Unfriended movies stand out is in their use of the entire frame. While director Stephen Susco certainly guides our eyes and our attention - deftly backgrounding Matias' audiovisual surroundings when something of particular narrative importance is taking place elsewhere on screen - the film still benefits from us being aware of the entire mosaic of scattered information. It asks us to look around the frame - to follow every typed message and every click, to read and judge characters' reactions, to pick up on details and clues. Or to simply observe.

Sight unseen, the original Unfriended seemed like an inevitably bad horror movie with an untenable visual schtick and, with its Facebook-specific title, a tenuous attachment to the social-media zeitgeist. But what made it one of 2014's most pleasant surprises was director Levan Gabriadze's nimble orchestration of the action. Beyond just the deft and quiet building of its opaque brand of suspense, the director embraced the strange chaos of this type of communication - the overlaps and awkward pauses and occasional technical glitches.

Susco has nicely taken his predecessor's lead, matching the aesthetic while employing a few tricks of his own. And while it's branded under the same franchise name, this is a standalone film, the supernatural hover of the previous entry removed in favor of real-world horrors.

It's the malleability of the format - genre and otherwise - that makes it so exciting. The way Dark Web juggles its multiple Skype broadcasts and various other behaviors (searches, chats, logins, menus, scanners) is a testament to how much can be done within such a presumptively rigid template. In the right hands, at least. It's a form that's already proven an effective modern delivery system for both character interaction and suspense, and in fashions fundamentally similar to the ways directors have long used mirrors and split screens. There's Lois Weber and Brian DePalma lineage on display here. (Not to inflate its qualities too much, I hope.) Which ultimately makes me curious to see how far filmmakers will try to push it - and, more interestingly, in what types of movies they might choose to apply it.

Right now we're getting a certain type of thriller, but there could be so much more. Wouldn't a corporate drama make sense? A legal thriller, given the right premise? A long-distance romance? A long-distance chamber drama? I'm not being facetious when I say this would lend itself easily to a My Dinner with Andre-like two-hander. Sure, you'd lose the intimacy of a small table in a quiet French restaurant; then again, much modern conversation has lost that particular type of intimacy already, replaced by ... well, by however you want to characterize modern methods like texting and social media. I could also see the basic conceit of Unfriended being recreated on stage.

Don't get me wrong - this kind of thing, even if and when it expands beyond what we've seen so far, has its limits. And I'd rather not get bombarded with a slew of movies that limit themselves to a single computer screen, no matter how many windows it contains. The form should probably remain niche. But it's one worthy of invention and experimentation.

That one of Dark Web's central threads is about communication itself - Matias' deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras) has grown frustrated by his failure to learn sign language, which has put the onus only on her to understand him without him putting in much effort to reciprocate - may or may not be incidental to the film's unique emphasis on technological devices. But either way, the film captures aspects of our modern ways of life - the immediacy of communication itself, the fragility of privacy - and deftly exploits them. People often joke about pre-21st Century movies that would be completely transformed - in some cases, to the point of evaporating altogether - simply by the existence of cell phones. The Unfriended movies are an interesting counter; they don't just necessitate modern technology but tell a kind of story that up until recently could not even exist.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.

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