Tuesday, January 26, 2016

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 Great Plains.

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 good.

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.

There 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.