Editor’s Note: I’ve asked BrianK to explore the arid wasteland of Netflix’ Watch Instantly section once a week in search of lost treasures, the only important rule being his find cannot be a film anyone has ever told him anything about. These are his results.
The dead woman is quickly revealed to be the suicide-victim wife of Dr. Karl (Aiden Gillen), who is shown sometime later to be trying to balance caring for his young daughter with his job and his grief. Shortly thereafter, Claudia (Amber Tamblyn) – who maybe accidentally killed her grandmom by saying hello to a homeless man – and Tommy (Armie Hammer) – the sensitive semi-badass – are introduced as the other 2/3rds of our trio who will become stuck in an elevator.
So there we have our setup – this diverse group of folk (not too diverse, they are all Caucasian after all) will be within elbow range of each other for at least a few hours, while stuck high in a seemingly impossibly tall residential building elevator shaft. To make things worse, the building is under much needed renovations, and is almost vacant for Fourth of July Weekend.
Emotions quickly get the best of our triumvirate, partially due to their obvious predicament, and partially because they all have important shit to do. The early bickering is intercut with flashbacks revealing their backgrounds and why they are in such a damn hurry. The acting is surprisingly strong all the way around, especially Aiden Gillen, as the off-kilter doctor, and Armie Hammer (who I think could should have a future in action movies), as the “tough” guy.
Be warned though, it gets a tad “darker” than you might expect. This is not LIFE BOAT or PHONE BOOTH, in terms of subject matter usually presented in the people-stuck-in-small-places genre. The director, Rigoberto Castañeda, is a Mexican fellow (I apologize if that sounds vaguely racist), who, by looking at some of the scenes in BLACKOUT, and the title of his short film NECROFILIA, has some of the same predilections as early Nacho Cerdà. You get one guess as to what those are.
Those proclivities aside, Castañeda, along with cinematographer Alejandro Martínez (STAY ALIVE†), keep everything looking sharp. They make ample use of the technique pioneered by Fincher in PANIC ROOM – where the camera appears to travel through floors and walls (probably without the expense of the “previsualization” used by Fincher). Albeit a little showy, in BLACKOUT the technique was not entirely without purpose in the scope of telling the story. That’s better than most special effects can say.
Castañeda does a good job at continually amping up the tension, whether by mechanical failure or unexpected character development. Speaking of the characters, they actually earn their behavior, if that makes sense. Even abrupt shifts in personalities are supported by little things called “reason” and “purpose,” which can be all too absent in the “thriller” genre.
The script, by Ed Doughtery (his sole credit to date), does an admirable job of fleshing out each of the character’s stories. Even the backstories are enjoyable vignettes. Hammer’s character’s story could have made an interesting “romantic drama,” had he not stepped on that elevator. Characters in movies of this subspecies usually do not get that level of respect from their writers and directors.
Don’t let me go overboard here. BLACKOUT isn’t a perfect movie, by any means. It certainly isn’t the most original story in the world, there are a couple scenes that feel completely out of place, and I thought the director missed out on making it more claustrophobic. But it puts itself in the upper echelon of DTV thrillers by being genuinely tense, fun, and ultimately quite entertaining. These qualities are not expected from a film randomly picked on Netflix’s “Watch Instantly”, but movies that come up behind you with a whisper can catch you by surprise.
*No actual blackout.
†It should be noted that by simply mentioning this title I run the risk of Peter refusing to publish this review.