Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Slamdance ’16: If There’s a Hell Below
Driving through wide open and apparently
endless highways and rural routes can make you feel disconcertingly exposed.
The notion that the government might be monitoring and tracking average people without
probable cause is also somewhat disturbing. Even though the latter is a red hot
button issue, a Chicago journalist’s misadventures are far more successful
conveying the unease of the former. Regardless, he will find himself well out
of his depth in Nathan Williams’ If There’s
a Hell Below, which
screens during the 2016 Slamdance Film Festival.
Abe has arranged to meet “Debra” out in
the middle of nowhere, because she claims to have some sort of explosive information
regarding an NSA-ish government agency. Even her first name is more personal
information than she wants Abe to have, if it really is her name, which it
probably isn’t. She is a senior mid-level data cruncher of some sort, but at her
level, even her gender would be a meaningful tell.
Debra is certainly better at the
cloak-and-dagger stuff than Abe. He will try to win her trust and calm her
raging paranoia, but that obsessive fear and suspicion is not misplaced. Events
will happen, but at a slow boil that allows for enough ambiguity to fill the
The teasingly oblique manner in which
Williams’ advances the narrative could have fallen flat, but he manages keep
the audience focused like a laser-beam. Frankly, the entire film feels like an
homage to North By Northwest, in
which Roger Thornhill is constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering if
that crop-duster really means business. Of course, nothing is as it really
seems, but Williams’ third act reversals are almost too much for their own
Still, Conner Marx and Carol Roscoe put on
a veritable master class playing off each other as the earnest Abe and the skittish
Debra. Mark Carr also delivers and fascinating and deceptively out-of-left
field monologue as a character whose identity we never really verify.
is no question If There’s a Hell is
the sort of film you have to work with. Yet, the layers of mystery Williams
bakes in make it quite distinctive. The importance of Chris Messina’s
cinematography cannot be over-emphasized. He vividly captures a sense of vulnerability
one feels on isolated stretches of empty road. Ironically, the film is so enigmatic,
we lose sight of the very policies it seeks to critique, but that is not such a
bad thing. Recommended for adventurous viewers with adult attention spans, If There’s a Hell Below screens again
tomorrow (1/27), as part of this year’s Slamdance in Park City, Utah.
Labels: Slamdance '16