Chris Gorak's directorial debut generated some buzz when it toured the film festival circuits between 2006-2007, and perhaps by focusing on an ordinary couple, Lexi and Brad, with common grievances and never revealing the reasons for or the perpetrators of the dirty bomb, the film is instantly timeless – which makes it scarier knowing the high-strung emotions between the two can be applicable to any event that has one person forced to keep their better half outside, knowing they're going to die slowly and painfully.
Urban paranoia isn't a new concept, and one can trace tales of self preservation within a modern catastrophe from “The Shelter” (1961), an old Twilight Zone episode of a family keeping the neighbours out of their bomb shelter during an assault, or David Koepp's Trigger Effect (1996) that followed a couple's insular state during a city-wide power failure to their escape and entrapment in the barren landscape of an outer city highway (a ploy that ultimately undid Koepp's montage of paranoia and reduced the film's final half into stupid selfish people being very dumb and very annoying).
Gorak's take on paranoia keeps the drama mostly within or around one house, and one has to assume every neighbour has sealed themselves up to avoid exposure to the deadly toxins slowly wafting down from an expansive blast cloud. The story would've been more interesting had Brad attempted some communication with his neighbours, but the assumption one has to make is that Brad and Lexi are either one of the few people who managed to stay or make it back home during a busy weekday, or they're one of a whole block of neighbours that, much as many current city neighbours, keep to themselves and don't interact beyond a wave across the street.
The finale is somewhat effective – script excerpts in the Special Features section illustrate what common elements were retained in the final cut and what was shorn (mostly very bad dialogue) – and it works if one assumes the military medics assigned to weed out survivors are under a widespread government policy that foregoes helping even the most dire sufferers, but where the script falters is in some lapses in logic.
With great care, Gorak sets up an environment of total mistrust that's maintained by patrolling police cars, multiple helicopter flybys, and stray survivors seeking help from the deadly ash raining like grayed snowflakes, yet he has Lexi often taking foolish risks: she talks on the phone to her mother in plain view of the neighbours and helicopters, or walks the house circumference when she knows she'd be dragged off by authorities if spotted; and in a nighttime scene, she listens to phone messages while seated under a porch light after having run from the police (and just as baffling is the time lag that Brad allows when he urgently tells her to run to the house's rear; Gorak never has Brad appearing in a window to coax her inside before being spotted).
There's also not enough personal exchanges between Brad and a local carpenter who begs to stay and ultimately helps Brad wrap up the house; if Brad is indicative of couples in neighborhoods living insular lives, wouldn't he want to make sure this stranger isn't a psycho?
Gorak's script is a bit wobbly at times (sporting a lost child character with the oft-used, cliché-ridden name Timmy), but he's refined his film concept to some strong examples of sacrifice, trust, and betrayal, and he's given his able cast a lot of wiggle room to live their characters and transcend some flat dialogue. His experience as a former art director also comew into play with the film's elegant look, and as he recounts in the DVD's commentary track, having worked with several unique directors – David Fincher, Steven Spielberg, Mike Figgis – he's learned enough skills to deliver a polished film shot very quickly, within a tight budget.
Unlike the bonus director interviews on the DVD (which feel like afterthought Q&As, taped when Gorak had finished recording his commentary, although they do offer more precise info on the film's production and post-production stages), the track itself is more solid because he's prompted by Empire magazine's David Hughes who makes sure enough making-of facts and observations are discussed to the film's end. Gorak's filmmaking training began when he shifted from architecture to art direction and production design, and he's proof positive one can learn the ropes without attending film school.
Maple's DVD offers a nice transfer of the Super-16 film, although the black bars when displayed on a standard TV are oddly more gray than deep black, making the framing distracting from the film. The 5.1 sound mix is very clean, and shows off some rich audio textures and sound effects layers that fit snugly with tomandandy's superb electronic score (which is definitely worth acquiring).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan