Friday, September 2, 2011

Four Boxes: Bait And Switch

I'm not especially picky when it comes to the movies on which I'm willing to take a chance.  Some movies are going to be a pre-sold commodity for me because of the director or what I'm able to glean from a trailer. Then there's all the ones about which I know next to nothing - the Netflix Instant queue is great for these, because for every two or three direct-to-video hack jobs, there's one hidden gem. If I'm a little judicious, I don't run into too many stinkers - usually if the premise sounds interesting to me (not too hackneyed or hackneyed in a way I like) and it's got more than one or two stars, I'll give it a shot. At the very least, I'll run into something flawed with potential, or a good idea brought low by poor execution.

Four Boxes is none of these.

Part of the problem starts right out of the (hahaha) box. Here's the premise of the movie:

Trevor and Rob are enterprising young men who run an eBay business specializing in the liquidation of unclaimed estate property. They look for recent deaths in the obituary section and check to see whether or not the deceased has any next of kin. If not, they basically clean out the property and auction the person's possessions on eBay. Ghoulish? Yes. Sleazy? Kind of. Truth be told, one of the few successful things about this movie is how well it portrays the sheer awfulness of the kind of people who'd make a living doing this (the name of the business? "Go Time." So, you know, nice). Their most recent score is a bland McMansion in the middle of some unnamed suburban development. The previous occupant left behind what appeared to be a life of bleak desperation. No furniture to speak of, just mattresses and a lot of boxes and Tupperware bins containing all of his stuff.

Upon investigation, it emerges that there were some not-quite-right things about the previous occupant. He appeared to be suicidal, certainly depressed, mourning the loss of a wife who apparently hung herself in the basement. Photo albums full of defaced pictures, faced cut out or scratched through. Cryptic notes and codes. Odd collections of objects. Rob discovers that the tenant was following a mysterious website called "", ostensibly a voyeuristic webcam site where the original occupant (a hot girl) had moved out and not removed or switched off the webcams. As a result the current tenant was under surveillance without their knowledge. As it transpires, the new tenant is up to no good.

So, you've got two guys going through the personal effects of a deeply disturbed man who was obsessed with an equally disturbing website. On this basis, I was happy to say "okay, let's give it a shot."

But that's…the premise. The execution reads more like this:

Trevor and Rob are shiftless, obnoxious manchildren who speak in appropriated slang slathered with a layer of irony so thick that their voices practically come equipped with air quotes. They see their efforts to resell the property of dead people as a way to get rich, something they can eventually franchise. They are stunted in their lives and relationships, incapable of honest communication. Trevor is slightly more mature, but this just means that he's more sleazy than anything else, and Rob is, in many ways, infantile. Think of Dante and Randal from Clerks with absolutely no charm or redeeming qualities. These, ladies and gentlemen, are our heroes. Their arrival at the house is followed by a desultory examination of the deceased's effects, complete with contemptuous mockery of the man's life and how he must have arrived at the end of his rope. They toss keepsakes and mementoes around, parodying the grief he must have felt.

Into this modern exercise in grave desecration steps Amber, Rob's fiancée (and Trevor's ex-girlfriend). She's equally as horrible as they are, just as prone to completely empty, inauthentic conversation, punctuated with terrible songs played on an acoustic guitar. These three are our protagonists, and they are so disconnected from any sort of empathy as to border on the autistic. Thirty minutes into the movie, I looked at my wife and said "I cannot wait for these people to die." So yeah, it's going to be very difficult to identify with these three. They're as empty and soulless as the suburban sprawl outside their window.

The titular website is equally inert. We're supposed to be watching somebody engaging in scary, dangerous behavior remotely, but it's almost impossible to make out anything on the webcam footage. Everything has been treated with what appears to be a heavy posterization filter, so we get still-frame sequences of muddy color to which the protagonists react with, well, mild interest. The surveilled occupant appears to be a man who walks around his apartment in a gas mask with a towel over his head like a hood. Rob calls him "Havoc." Why? Who the fuck cares? 

Nobody comments on Havoc's strange getup, and there's never really any progressive sense of danger from the website. Every now and then one of the characters looks at it, registers that they're looking at it, maybe invites over one of the others to look at it, and that's pretty much it. Even in the house of a disturbed dead man, watching footage of someone who might be a killer over the Internet, they're more occupied with themselves than anything or anyone else. They come up with cute names for the people they see on the camera footage, and when Amber points out that maybe they should call the police because it looks like Havoc has imprisoned someone, Rob scoffs, saying that nothing on the Internet is real, and even if it is, it's someone else's job to do that. The incident is soon forgotten. 

This is pretty much all the movie is, until close to the end. Inert sequences of three awful people sitting around talking about nothing in the most annoying way possible, and reacting to a possible real-world atrocity like they would an embarrassing video on YouTube. There's nothing scary about Havoc or his potential plans - there's some nonsense about him being a terrorist, building bombs to put in people's tailpipes, and he apparently kills people with a leaf blower, but that's about it. The closest thing the movie has to a climax is preemptively negated by a plot reveal that is probably supposed to shock the viewer, but doesn't because it's just as detached and hackneyed as the original story, making some kind of heavy-handed point at best, and at worst coming off as something the creators did because they had the attention span of a crack-addicted squirrel. This twist is upended yet again, but by that point there's absolutely no reason to care, and all of the arty match cuts and slow dissolves in the world won't give the ending impact. Somebody either thought they were being artistic, or maybe just "artistic", as an ironic comment on artistry in the age of webcams and YouTube.

And out of everything about this movie, I think that's probably the worst part - it refuses to commit to its premise, almost as if that level of sincerity is a bad thing, as worthy of derision as the sad testament to a sick man's last days. It sabotages its own story at every turn, by giving us nobody to care about, by refusing the buildup of any tension or sense of fear, by throwing in twists which not only negate everything that came before, but seem almost contemptuous of the audience, revealing the fraud of the filmmaking process (oh yeah, I get it - what we SEE isn't always what IS, wow, that's "deep", man…) and letting the entire enterpise slowly collapse like a balloon losing air. We're told that we're going to get a story, and what we get instead is the message that wanting a story or expecting to feel something in response to what we're watching is for losers, and this movie doesn't earn that. It's a trite, self-indulgent, piece of shit.

1 comment:

  1. From your review, it also seems like this film is trying to comment on what Rear Window would look like if it were made today. I'm not saying that makes the film any more interesting than how you portray it, merely that perhaps it could have been in the "good" film that you were describing in the "premise."