Director: Justin Cole
Rating: 3 and a half out of 5 affluent socialites for this found footage marvel: it admittedly works best as a movie when you know as little about it as possible, but speaking as someone whose curiosity got the best of them before watching it unfortunately, it still managed to emerge for me as an effectively disturbing and unsettling viewing experience and even more so than that, an exercise in impressively manipulative marketing a la Blair Witch Project but for the viral video era, and with a strong, equally timely critique of the kind of spoiled young NYC yuppies it centers upon.
So, let us begin with the overall synopsis, and then (because I have already warned of spoilers) I will get a little deeper into the fascinating and triumphant aspects of the film which would give away too much for those who’d rather, and rightly so, wish to go in blind.
The film is an edited culmination of 393 minutes of recovered footage which documented a young woman’s overdose and death and subsequent cover up undertaken by the group of despicable rich white kids who invited her to recklessly party with them in the first place. The footage was released in pieces starting in 2010 on YouTube, ensuing in blackmail plots and a media firestorm of celebrity speculations and film property rumors, all the while we are left now to wonder– are we really seeing an actual death on screen? Can this actually be real?
The mere idea of that is terrifying enough to carry the film. But, alas, and here are the spoilers: it is all fake. I watched it knowing that fact, but as with all found footage, I did my very best to suspend disbelief. I think I appreciated the film in a different way and on a different level though, knowing that it wasn’t real; I was judging it as a kind of meta media event in itself, a total upheaval of the found footage genre and the marketing experimentation that is sometimes (and in this case, definitely) even more interesting than the film it seeks to promote.
I had to let what I’d seen sort of sink in, because it is a film which in certain ways defies ordinary or immediate reactions somehow; I felt uneasy after watching it, but not scared, but the more I thought about it, the more it sort of haunted me anyway. It isn’t a horror movie in any traditional sense, and if you’re expecting that, you’ll be somewhat bored because the events are typical and almost too realistic. And our “protagonists,” if we must call them that, are deeply unlikable, which gives the whole thing an eerie aura of discomfort and dread.
But, the aspect which specifically haunted me is, again, perhaps something bigger and which spills out far beyond the 90 minutes of the film itself. What is scarier, in my opinion, is the way Cole had created and gradually disseminated the film, building it straight from the culture we live in; it is a creepily convincing story and the fact that we as a society were gullible to it on so many different platforms says something about our media landscape and our society at large. Cole seamlessly navigated that landscape in order to successfully create enough of a legitimate stir– from Entertainment Tonight to Quentin Tarantino– to include proof of in the film, giving it a documentary feel that is unparalleled by any other found footage movie to date. As far as anyone was concerned between 2010 and 2013, the mysterious farce was an authentic scandal, and the evidence of that very fact is enough to make us believe it all over again for the duration of the film or to at least consider the horror inherent in that phenomenon in itself.
In terms of found footage film making, the camera is characteristically shaky and many images are basically blurs, but there are some deeply affecting camera positions that allow us to hear characters without seeing them, for instance. This gives us the unusual sensation (for found footage, anyway) of claustrophobia and immobility that these types of films usually ignore in favor of constant motion. It is these moments specifically that help the tension mount and which further save the film from being one that is brilliant and profound in theory but lackluster and anti-climactic in practice. I really liked this film but my appreciation and respect for it might still be motivated by its own intriguing and significant history more than its eventual and still very smart execution.