Unregistered: living authentically versus living a comfortable but insecure lie

Sophia Banks, “Unregistered” (2018)

This short film commenting on the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidency (2017 – 2021) has a lush treatment that suggests it could be a pilot for a television series or a full-length movie. Rekker and Ata are two teenagers in love: we first meet them wandering through an open forest bathed in radiant sunlight. The first inkling that all might not be what meets the eye is Ata’s concern for her contact lens which she has lost in the forest undergrowth. At the same time images of her looking through a screen at herself and Rekker walking through the forest pop up briefly throughout the scene. Rekker wants to know why Ata keeps recording their moves in real time, and Ata replies evasively.

The two hear a megaphone message and they pass through the scene and into everyday city life in Los Angeles. Viewers realise the forest scene was an artificial creation, hologram-like yet apparently three-dimensional with objects that acted and felt like their real counterparts. Almost straight away a stranger not far from Rekker and Ata is identified by drones as “unregistered” – having been scanned by the drones, he is found not to have an identity they recognise, so they drop a cyber-cage over him and trap him – and police quickly move in, remove the cage and subdue him. They take him away to be deported to a camp.

Much of the rest of this love story cum police-state dystopia concerns the tension that arises between Ata and Rekker, as Rekker challenges Ata’s attitude towards living in a world of unreality, accepting comfort and security at the cost of giving up political freedoms and being able to choose to live authentically. The film later shows Ata at home with her parents, the parents being revealed as administrators in the police-state bureaucracy, and the tensions that develop between the parents and the daughter. Rekker drops by to give Ata a birthday present and at this point an unexpected plot twist also drops into the narrative, forcing Rekker to make a choice that will change his life and Ata’s life forever.

While the plot seems unfinished and the characters are rather shallow, the film makes a clear point about being able to choose an authentic life in which individuals can make choices and bear responsibility for those choices, as opposed to living vicariously through simulations or other people’s experiences, and not having the ability to choose what to experience and what to avoid. A life of comfort, security and conformity is shown to be no compensation for living under constant surveillance and in fear of being arrested and imprisoned.

The Fisherman: character study of outsider-turned-superhero in alien invasion short

Alejandro Suarez Lozano, “The Fisherman” (2015)

A cleverly made and succinct little SF horror film set in Hong Kong, “The Fisherman” combines a character study that might have been inspired by the Ernest Hemingway classic “The Old Man and the Sea” with a theme about how people become marginalised and impoverished by changes in society and technology that leave them, their work and skills behind. Fisherman Wong (Andrew Ng) who specialises in fishing for squid is down on his luck and in danger of losing his fishing boat (where he also lives), being three months behind on his rent, because overcrowding in the harbour and the proliferation of tourist boats and dance party cruises have scared away the marine life. Wong promises his irate landlord that he’ll make a big catch on his next trip that will pay off what he owes. During the evening he sails his vessel far out of the harbour and witnesses an odd electrical storm that sends a lightning bolt into the sea and spawns an odd underwater being. The bell on his line tinkles and the fisherman draws up an odd-looking mewling squid. He puts it into a holding basket but it escapes and all his dreams of instant wealth vanish. Despondent, Wong almost considers suicide until the bell rings again, more insistently this time, and Wong goes out to draw up what turns out to be the catch of his life …

For most of its running time the film builds up in a leisurely way that fills viewers in on Wong’s taciturn nature, his determination and greed, and this concentration on Wong’s character helps add to the suspense that gradually escalates during the fishing trip. His is not a complicated character, being motivated by what he can get in the next catch and how he can spend the money. Unfortunately with living expenses being high in Hong Kong – many working-class people of Wong’s generation having to live in virtual rabbit-hutch conditions in crowded shared accommodation – Wong probably can only hope that he’ll be able to spend the rest of his days living on his old rented fishing vessel. It’s in the last few minutes that the plot twists come that test Wong’s toughness, resilience and ability to come back from the dead. The film turns into instant horror flick as Wong fights for his life, and then into an alien invasion movie as he returns into the harbour and sees his home city on fire from an invasion of monsters high in the sky. Somehow the thought that he might be the only survivor and that he no longer need pay any outstanding debts on his boat and equipment briefly flashes through his mind. A new career as bounty alien hunter beckons him as the bell on his line starts ringing again …

Ng does well as the hardened fisherman who has seen all and experienced all, and who now has more than a few tall tales to tell tourists. Wong doesn’t say a lot in the film but film close-ups of his face and eyes, even in the dark, show his fear and wariness despite his bravado.

Hardly a moment goes to waste in this film; every scene, every bit of dialogue helps to build up Wong’s character and the world he lives in (and which later turns upside down). Wong starts out as a poor fisherman left behind by greedy materialist capitalist society and technology but at the film’s end he becomes potentially indispensable to a society barely surviving under alien onslaught. Who would have thought that the hordes led by cephalopod capo di capi Cthulhu would turn out to be the saviours of humanity by attacking the citadels of global financial capitalism?

Alone: drama and emotion in a tiny space-pod

William Hellmuth, “Alone” (2020)

A moving film about connection – and about how so strong humans’ need for connection can be that some individuals will travel across the universe for it – “Alone” packs in plenty of drama and emotion in very tight and limited environments. Astronaut engineer Kaya Torres (Stephanie Barkley) is separated from her research ship by an unseen disaster and her tiny pod is now languishing in orbit around a black hole. Torres sends out distress calls while she works out what to do and her calls for help are answered by Hammer (Thomas Wilson Brown), a cartographer marooned on a distant planet. Over several days as Torres’ situation grows increasingly desperate, the astronaut and the cartographer come to know and to care for each other. When her supplies have nearly run out, Torres drives her pod through the black hole and lands on Hammer’s planet. She follows a line of lights into a cave where a disheartening truth awaits her.

The film is a good study of human character under pressure in extreme isolation – Torres is light years away from human society, and no-one knows where she is or even if she exists – and Barkley does an excellent job inhabiting the character and her fears. The extreme isolation of space and how knowing how far away you are from the rest of humanity might affect your self-identity – after all, we often define ourselves in opposition against some humans or communities of humans – and throughout the film viewers can see Torres slowly disintegrating psychologically. From a brash person with a potty mouth and a stubborn spirit, Torres gradually becomes more fearful, succumbs to the demon hooch and relies more and more on Hammer’s communications through their computers to keep her going. She soon becomes obsessed with finding Hammer.

The film relies on good acting, which Barkley supplies plenty of, and the plot moves at a fairly brisk place. There’s not much time given over to philosophising and regretting the day when one had to board the research ship some time before catastrophe struck it. Barkley establishes her character as stoic and practical but over time Torres deteriorates visibly as her hopes of being rescued fade. As Hammer, Brown has harder work to do making his voice seem human, given the dialogue he has to deliver which reveals he does not know what vodka is. There is a suggestion that Hammer may not really be human at all. It is this fear perhaps that drives Torres to search him out and find out who he really is.

The technical effects are good without being remarkable for a short film on a tiny budget. The whole film is driven by dialogue and what the actors do with it. The plot’s climax cleverly is a test of Torres’ character and almost results in a cliff-hanger ending. The film seems to beg for a sequel but I consider it self-contained and complete.

Flyby: an ingenious but weak film on time literally slipping away

Jesse Mittelstadt, “Flyby” (2019)

In its own way this film can be considered a horror film, focusing as it does on how an alien force seems to affect individuals and rob them of control over their lives and the lives of others. A mystery asteroid comes close to Earth and is captured by Earth’s gravity to become a satellite. Not long afterwards, people are being stricken by a strange malady in which they lose all or most of their sense of time passing them by. One such victim is everyday man Bill (Riley Egan) who joins with friends at a bar shortly after the asteroid’s passing is reported on television. Everyone talks excitedly about the asteroid and about the nature of time. Bill later leaves with Cora (Tommee May) and goes to bed with her. When he wakes up later, Cora is already several months pregnant with their child. She walks out of the bedroom, Bill spends some time trying to digest the situation, he hears Cora calling him so he races out of the room and discovers her holding their two-year-old toddler Maven (Bardot Corso).

From then on Bill is lost trying to keep up with a life literally slipping away from him and old age rapidly catching up with him. In the blink of an eye Maven has become an adult (Tommee May again) who cares for her father, Cora having left him years ago in a lifetime Bill cannot remember. Maven turns on a gadget that runs through pictures of their lives together with Cora and Bill gazes at past experiences he has no memory of. In the meantime the mystery asteroid escapes its orbit around the Earth and leaves the solar system, leaving Bill and others like him in old age with no memory of what they have done over the past half-century.

The film can be viewed as a metaphor for dementia or it can be viewed as an attempt to capture an individual’s experience of time as s/he matures and then ages. People’s perceptions of time seem to speed up as they get older so a year seems to pass quickly while a child’s experience of a year is very slow; moreover older people remember how slowly the years went by when they were children! The film might also be seen as a commentary on time itself, and how much of a cultural construct time might be.

While the film’s plot is ingenious, positing the passage of time itself as a time machine, its weakness is that Bill is hardly given any, erm, time to consider the error of his ways and to express regret for past actions that have the effect of locking him and Cora into lives they might have preferred not to live. Character development is very weak and at the end of the film Bill is quite literally the same man he was (or thinks he is) just a few minutes ago because in the space of a few minutes he really did lose most of his life.

The film probably could have been fleshed out a bit more so that viewers see more of Bill’s life as a failing husband and father, his faltering marriage and perhaps the separation and divorce from Cora. Bill’s life comes across as flat and unremarkable. The implication that by losing time, Bill loses control of his life – with the result that decisions he might have made (and which are lost to him) lock him into consequences and situations he cannot change but which further entrench him in an existential prison – is lost on viewers.

Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away): concluding episode delving into outright fantasy and falsehood

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away)” (2020)

If the first three episodes of this series on Hillary Rodham Clinton are essentially worshipful hagiography, the fourth and concluding episode descends into outright fantasy. Viewers learn very little new about HRC and especially about her years as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as US President (2009 – 2013). The episode brushes aside HRC’s voting record as Senator on the wars initiated by President George W Bush (2001 – 2009) in Afghanistan in late 2001, soon after the World Trade Center attacks, and then in Iraq in 2003. The not so little incident of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens being ambushed and killed along with three other Americans in the consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya, by terrorists is also treated quite cavalierly. Nothing is said about HRC’s role in allowing a context to exist in which four American citizens end up being killed in a small building in a city where one of them, a US Ambassador, is not expected to be. What was Stevens doing in Benghazi anyway – surely not running guns and jihadi fighters to Syria? Similarly nothing is made of the overthrow of a legitimately elected government in Honduras in 2010 or in Libya in 2011, the latter to which HRC, while being interviewed, cackled and said, “We came, we saw, he [Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi] died!” On top of this inattention to the issues that Americans are most concerned about – issues about public servants being accountable for their decisions and behaviours, and upholding the law – is the breezy dismissal of HRC’s use of a private email server with poor cyber-security to transact government business, of which much was in the public interest.

The episode brings viewers up to date with HRC’s decision to campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 and her campaign’s emphasis on gender politics, portraying HRC as a champion for feminism and a victim of institutional misogyny, and especially of her Republican rival Donald Trump (with whom the Clintons had previously been friendly), while saying nothing about what her campaign actually stood for in the eyes of the voting public. This narrative is pounded again and again in each of the episodes in this series. As might be expected, nothing is said about the women harmed by Bill Clinton while he was Governor of Arkansas and then US President by his actions toward them, or about his frequent trips to notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein’s private island for trysts with underage teenage women.

The breathless format of the series, in which viewers are forced to sit through constant swinging from HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign to particular episodes of her earlier life and back again, might be designed deliberately to sweep viewers off their feet into a rollercoaster ride through HRC’s life, not allowing them to step back and have the distance to view HRC’s life, decisions and actions more dispassionately and critically. HRC is constantly portrayed as a fighter and battler to get where she is when in fact it would seem much has actually been handed to her through her husband’s associations and past career. Significantly the series ignores much of her career as New York state senator or US Secretary of State – because the truth is, she achieved nothing worth celebrating that fits in with a paradigm that sees her as a feminist champion and achiever. Her major achievements have actually brought ruin, chaos, violence and death to many millions of people around the world.

The attempts to smear Donald Trump with accusations of Russian collusion to gain the US Presidency and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a soulless character who will always be nothing more than a KGB man, with no evidence to back up such insults, demonstrate the shallowness of Burstein’s subject. That Burstein simply agrees with HRC and follows along, instead of probing these issues and challenging HRC, reveals the series as essentially propaganda of a very mediocre standard. HRC herself is an uninteresting subject for a documentary: smug, self-serving and expecting the world to revolve around her.

Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision): more fawning over a despicable subject

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 3: The Hardest Decision)” (2020)

Purporting to show how Hillary Rodham Clinton became a feminist icon to millions of women (and quite a few men) around the world, this episode in the four-part hagiography by Nanette Burstein does little more than portray its uninteresting subject as a victim of reactionary politics and malign forces in US politics. The hardest decision of the episode’s title that HRC makes turns out to one facing most women at some point in their marriages or equivalent unions: when a partner has been unfaithful, and moreover dallied with a number of women over the years of married life, should the cuckolded partner forgive the errant one, and stay together, or should the cuckold leave the one who did wrong? Even when HRC does make that decision, seeing how it benefits both HRC and Bubba is hard: neither HRC nor any of her 2016 Presidential campaign staff is asked any hard questions as to whether HRC’s forgiveness of her husband was a good idea to have undertaken in the past 20 or so years.

The episode sketchily yet smoothly covers the period of Bubba’s involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in its coverage of the political events, bombshells and scandals that pushed HRC out in front before blinking audiences. Nothing is said about how sex scandals and other related activities might have affected HRC’s rise to a position and influence during the mid to late 1990s. In-between significant events and trends during her husband’s years in the US Presidency, one might have expected to see how HRC learned to stand on her own feet away from the shadow of Bubba’s Presidency and the scandals associated with it. What happens here instead is that HRC exploits gender-based identity politics to elevate her own position and launch her campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 with the help of starry-eyed acolytes and advisors whose interviews here are little more than gushing praise for the woman.

A more sober, objective and energetic documentary portraying HRC and her influence on US politics and foreign policy will have to wait many more years. How she manipulated and exploited identity politics for her benefit, the role that mainstream news media in the US and elsewhere played in colluding with her in that manipulation, allowing her to escape prosecution for various crimes, and the malign effect such manipulation had on the American electorate and the feminist movement in the US, to the extent that huge numbers of people were prepared to vote for her simply because she was a woman, ignoring her lack of policies that would actually help the poor and disadvantaged sections of the US population, is an issue Burstein is blind to. Above all, in spite of her attempts to sanctify HRC by denigrating her campaign opponent Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign debates, odious as he was then (and still is), Burstein still is unable to show how and why HRC lost what should have been a winnable election against a politically inexperienced outsider.

Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady): on the road to smug notoriety

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 2: Becoming a Lady)” (2020)

This episode continues to cover Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life from the time hubby Bubba Bill decides to campaign for the US Presidency in 1992 after serving five terms as Governor of Arkansas to the Whitewater real estate investment controversy that dogged the couple during Bubba’s first term as President. As in the first episode, the events of the early to mid-1990s are interspersed with the events of HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign during its early run from when HRC bad-mouths Democrat rival Bernie Sanders to Super Tuesday in early March and a bit beyond that. These events are recounted by HRC herself and her campaign aides in a narrative that flatters the woman and paints her as a victim of bullying by the Republican Party and forces in US society antagonistic to the idea of a First Lady who is anything but submissive and content to stay at home in the White House supervising interior decorations and the garden design. Director Burstein rarely if ever challenges her subject on any aspect of what they discuss that does not only conform to a pre-arranged script of HRC as a righteous saintly type badly treated by reactionary forces in US society but is significant in its own right because of the light it casts on HRC’s behaviour then when the issue was current and on her behaviour since that time.

By presenting herself as a victim of malign misogynistic individuals and groups, and portraying herself as a feminist champion and pioneer, HRC comes off as self-absorbed and smug. Her aides are worshipful and adoring. Few of director Burstein’s interviewees ever stop to wonder whether HRC’s own personality and behaviour might be factors contributing to her unpopularity, the constant put-downs and smears against her reputation. As a result, Burstein’s film is less documentary, and more fawning hagiography. I hazard that many years, perhaps even decades, will have to pass before a more balanced and sober account of HRC’s life and the damage she has inflicted on US politics and society since she became a Senator for New York state in 2001 can be done.

Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl): early years of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life receive glowing treatment

Nannette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 1: The Golden Girl)” (2020)

Ostensibly a four-part series on the life and career of Hillary Rodham Clinton, this work is never more than a worshipful hagiography of the woman who, after nearly a complete Presidential four-year cycle, has still never accepted that she was and will always be the least favoured of two unlikeable candidates for the US Presidency in late 2016. The series takes the form of interviews conducted by Burstein (never seen, though her voice can be heard) of HRC and various aides who have worked for her over the decades, including those aides who worked for her 2016 Presidential campaign.

Episode 1 “The Golden Girl” follows HRC’s life from her childhood growing up in a staunch Republican family in a comfortable middle class neighbourhood through her college years in the 1960s, during which she worked as a volunteer for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, to postgraduate studies at Yale University Law School where she met Bill Clinton, whom she married and followed to Arkansas where she taught in the law faculty at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. The episode then runs through Bill Clinton’s early political career, starting with his tenure as Attorney General for Arkansas and then his time as Governor of Arkansa, the latter during which HRC not only continued as a partner in Rose Law Firm (which she joined in the late 1970s) but also tackled education reform and was successful in establishing teacher testing and state standards for curricula and classroom sizes.

Inserted into the narrative of HRC’s early years are snapshots of her Presidential campaign in 2016 and the various controversies relating to her time as Secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s first term (2009 – 2012) that resurfaced during her campaign, in particular her role in the infamous 2012 incident in which US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed during a terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi; and her use of a private server over which she conducted government business in violation of Federal laws forbidding the use of privately owned and run digital technologies to receive, send, work on and store emails containing government information. Disturbingly HRC and another interviewee breezily wave away the private server issue by saying that a previous Secretary of State, Colin Powell, also had a private server while holding the position. (Did he ever use this server to transact government business in the way HRC did?)

The constant theme throughout this episode, which HRC and other interviewees consistently bash into the TV audience’s ears and faces, is that HRC’s story parallels the rise of second-wave feminism and the fight for women’s rights from the 1960s onwards. In very many occasions HRC claims she was battling misogynistic prejudice against her for her education and achievements, and for wanting to retain her maiden name after marrying Bill. Viewers are misled into thinking HRC a significant leader in the fight for women’s rights and equality with men before the law. At the same time though, very little attention is given by Burstein or her interviewees on what the ordinary John and Jane Doe know of the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960s / 70s and what HRC’s role might have been in that movement, if she had ever participated in it at all.

Despite covering the life of the woman who would become a significant figure in US politics and culture in her own right, for better and for worse, the program makes its subject an uninteresting and dull figure. One would have thought that Burstein, an experienced film director, would try to encourage HRC to relax and try to project a warm personality. Instead HRC comes across as a self-absorbed woman, around whom the world supposedly rotates and does obeisance. Everything dragged into the film, whether it be the history of civil rights and rights for women, ends up revolving around HRC.

Of course, nowhere in this episode will we see much about the scandals that were to follow the Clintons like a bad smell: scandals like the Whitewater real estate investment controversy or HRC’s dabbling in the trading of cattle futures contracts while serving as First Lady of Arkansas. As a result, viewers will only get a slanted view of HRC as a dedicated feminist and a tough political fighter. The real HRC, with all her sociopathic qualities, is carefully polished to Teflon-like sheen.

The Disappearance of Willie Bingham: portrait of a society exploiting emotions and desire for vengeance

Matt Richards, “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” (2015)

A truly unsettling short realist film about a bureaucracy gone insanely inhuman, pandering to the lowest common denominator in Western cultural ethics, this Australian psychological horror piece justifies wading through much dross on the Omeleto channel. Prisoner Willie Bingham (Kevin Dee) has been selected by the State of Victoria to undergo a new kind of punishment for having killed a child while intoxicated: the punishment involves the participation of the victim’s family who can demand that Bingham undergo a series of amputations while family members watch. The victim’s father (Tim Ferris) requests that Bingham’s left hand be chopped off first. After this operation, Bingham is then taken by his prison supervisor George Morton (Gregory J Fryer) and the police on a circuit of primary and secondary schools to demonstrate to youngsters the consequences of committing serious crimes: they too can expect to undergo progressive amputation. Over time, Bingham suffers more amputations: his right hand goes, then his left leg, and various organs also disappear. With each operation, the victim’s sisters refuse to watch and leave, and the father steadily becomes more disheveled. Bingham’s mental state deteriorates with each operation as well until he becomes completely traumatised, withdrawn and uncommunicative.

The acting is excellent and Dee’s performance as Bingham is heart-rendingly pathetic, not least because there is a possibility that he is innocent of several charges against him relating to the rape and murder of the child victim. As the convicted criminal in a prison system that has been largely privatised, pandering to public calls for Old Testament eye-for-an-eye vengeance against those deemed to have committed unspeakable crimes, Bingham has no say in his punishment and is caught up in a spiral of a relentless and deranged prison bureaucracy that acts with a demonic life of its own. The film does not say who ultimately is responsible for having set this Kafkaesque machine system in progress, literally chewing through each and every prisoner guilty of a serious crime. At the end of the film, Bingham is left a literal husk.

Other characters fare little better than Bingham: the victim’s father undergoes degradation as well and ironically appears to reach a state similar to Bingham’s initial state when he murdered the child. (One almost expects a late plot twist in which the father admits to the crime.) Bingham’s supervisor Fryer appears a broken man by the end of the film as he resignedly takes Bingham on yet another circus tour of various schools. The high school students view Bingham as a figure to be made fun of. What lessons they might learn are very different from what they are supposed to learn. Yet the bureaucracy carrying out the progressive amputation punishments on Bingham and others like him continues regardless.

Aside from obvious questions about how the State should deal with heinous acts of crime and the people who commit them, and whether effective justice can be served by the punishments attached to these crimes, there is a wider issue of the potential consequences of privatising prisons and other functions of the State, opening up these privatised functions to the whims of the general public and pandering to people’s emotions and instincts rather than their reason. The horrific, dehumanising effects of such privatisation and a populist approach to punishing prison inmates, on inmates, prison administrators, victims’ families and the people who carry out the progressive punishments are made plain to the audience. Even the supposed benefits of the punishments are questionable.

Much of the film’s power comes from its plausibility and its realist tone. All the characters are to some extent stereotypes and audiences can very readily identify with these stereotypes. The plot is very original but its inevitable and relentless trajectory cannot sustain a running time much longer than 15 minutes. For a film of its type to work, it needs to bring in philosophical issues about the role of the State in delivering justice to victims of crimes, in deciding the appropriate levels and types of punishments for crimes, and in accepting (or outsourcing) responsibility for imprisoning people and punishing them. The film also needs to say something about the nature of a society that enables an inhumane system of punishment exploiting emotions and desire for revenge and extreme punishments to exist and thrive.

Trunk Space: familiar and predictable story and plot elements redeemed by good performances

Max Silver, “Trunk Space” (2016)

As surely as the sun rises in the east, birds fly in the sky and fish swim in the oceans, so also do films that begin with two people driving through a barren desert and stopping to collect a strange hitch-hiker turn out to be terror-filled affairs in which one of the people in the car turns out to be a serial killer. So begins director Max Silver’s short film “Trunk Space”, in which best girl buddies Anna (Jessica Jade Andres) and Priss (Kate Krieger) are fleeing dreary work lives in the eastern US on a road trip holiday to California in their car, and are flying along a lonely highway in the Nevadan desert. They talk about all the guys they’ve seen and picked up along the way. They notice a guy (Jordan Turchin) standing next to a car that’s run out of gas and Anna offers him a lift over Priss’s objections. While Anna and the stranger make eyes at each other while Anna drives, Kate fumes in the back seat and fiddles with the stranger’s bag – she finds women’s bracelets inside. The conversation between the women themselves and between the stranger and the women becomes ever more tense and starts to take a weird and dark turn when the stranger, prompted by Kate’s discovery of an odd tattoo on his neck, tells the women a strange story about wolves. Finally the stranger takes control of the situation by telling Anna that she should have listened to Kate in the first place.

With most of the plot taking place in the car, the tension and mystery arise from the conversation and the conflict between Anna and Kate over the stranger’s presence. A familiar horror story feeding on familiar elements – two friends fleeing the city for unknown reasons for a supposed paradise, the friends falling out over an intruder who then manipulates their strained relationship, the stranger’s mysterious past – is refreshed by good performances from the three actors. The tension is heightened when Kate discovers on her mobile phone news that police have found decapitated bodies along the highway they are travelling.

As a result, when the plot twist comes, it does hit the viewer quite hard even though the viewer can guess what is about to happen. Now we realise what happened to the men Anna and Kate had picked up on their trip earlier and whom they rejected, and we also now know why they are fleeing to California. The plot twist is done very deftly and quickly, and before we know it, the two girls are on their way again and the film ends there and then.

The film is rather repetitive and drags on a bit too long which results in some over-acting from Andres and Krieger. Better dialogue, hinting at dark secrets in all characters’ pasts, perhaps a history of abuse for one character, or some desultory conversation about how the police are hunting for a murderer and Turchin’s character answering to the description of the man being pursued, might have strengthened the plot and made the film even more tense and horrifying. If the film had been made as part of a proposal to movie studios for a longer film, the bean counter executives would have been wise to ask Silver for a stronger and deeper concept