Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander star in Alex Garland's directorial debut
KM 31 director Rigoberto Castañeda's second feature is a high-tension three-hander set in a broken-down elevator - with added nihilism
"You can plan your whole life out, you can plot the most complex course - but sooner or later you're gonna walk into some piece of shit elevator."
So says Karl (Aidan Gillen) - softly spoken physician, loving father, devastated widower - as he contemplates the way life can be full of ups and downs. Recently he has been starting to get back into the semblance of a routine, and even dating again - but then, heading back to his LA apartment so that he can clean it before the arrival of his eight-year-old daughter Nikki (Emma Prescott) for the fourth of July, he takes a fateful step into the ancient building's lift, and everything slips out of his control once again.
Along for the ride are Claudia (Amber Tamblyn), a luckless, asthmatic student who lost both her parents as a child and whose beloved grandmother (Mabel Rivera) has just been involved in a serious car accident - and Tommy (Armie Hammer), a cocky, tattooed young man with bruises on his knuckles and a switchblade in his pocket. "A lot of dangerous people out there," he explains, and he's not wrong.
All three are in crisis, all three are in a hurry to be somewhere else - but then there is a blackout and the lift shudders to a halt between floors. There is no one else around, the temperature is rising, the air is thinning, the clock is ticking and, to make matters worse, the lift's cables are gradually snapping - along with its passengers. And so these three desperate strangers are confronted with the downward trajectory of their own lives and the hell that is other people.
Not only is Rigoberto Castañeda's second feature concerned with a trio's explosive convergence into a confined space, but it also brings together into a single film three genre types (thriller, drama, morality play) and three nationalities (it is based on an Italian novel, directed by a Mexican, and set in LA during that most American of holidays, Independence Day). That all of this adds up to far less than the sum of its parts is down to trouble in the mix.
The best parts of Blackout are those that most closely resemble Carl Schenkel's elevator-set thriller Abwärts (1984). The queasy swirling of the camera within the elevator shaft, the rising claustrophobia inside the lift itself, the time checks that jarringly punctuate events (reminiscent of The Shining, or TV's '24'), one bravura single take that sweeps fluidly from the lift through the empty building floor by floor and out into the street at night, even the Argento-esque excess of the climax - all these reveal the technical mastery of atmosphere and suspense that Castañeda had first displayed in his feature debut Km 31 (2006).
Too bad, then, that all the solid B-movie work is undone by three characters (or two, anyway) who are nowhere near interesting enough to warrant the number of disruptive flashback sequences devoted to them - and who certainly are not compelling enough to carry the film's darker existentialist themes (dovetailed in at beginning and end). Although one character does harbour a deadly secret that drives the narrative forward and down to its bitter end, for the most part the backstories here are pure melodrama, meandering and ill-suited to such otherwise taut material. Gillen channels the polite tones and nervous mannerisms of Edward Norton to such an extent that you begin to suspect the latter may have been the production's first choice for the role. Tamblyn makes for a serviceable victim/'final girl' but her character lacks substance. Hammer barely registers.
The ending of Blackout (and this is no spoiler) suggests that life is a series of random coincidences, collisions and accidents with no pattern dictating them - but the film's plot never really earns the right to a conclusion of such profoundly bleak nihilism. "Why do things like this happen?" someone asks in the final scene. The answer would seem to rest less in the harsh and unforgiving nature of the universe than in the overwrought contrivances of the film's script. Though no doubt a highly capable director, Castañeda still lacks the right story to elevate his talents.
These desperate strangers trapped together in a broken lift may be a metaphor for the human condition, but Blackout gets stuck between genres, without enough decent characterisation (or uninterrupted tension) to take it to the next level.
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