Indie filmmakers take one of two routes with no-budget features. They can do their own thing (Clerks, Buffalo 66, other defining films of the US indie explosion) or they can do Hollywood on no budget (Monsters, El Mariachi, Paranormal Activity) and try their best to do it so well that nobody really notices the difference.
You’ll notice the difference in Blackout, but it might not bother you too much.
The premise of this bare-bones little thriller is a simple “what would you do?” scenario, captured in a clever self-reflexive moment early on when our boyish protagonist, new junior partner at his girlfriend’s father’s firm, drinks with work friends and recounts the plot of an old movie. He doesn’t know the name, he says, but the story involves a man who wakes up with a dead woman in his house and no recollection of what happened the night before. What would his friends do in that situation? It’s a pleasure to watch our protagonist squirm as his friends tackle in the abstract what for him, of course, is real — there’s a dead woman in his shower, and he’s got to figure out what to do with her.
When Alfred Hitchcock learned Mel Brooks was in pre-production on High Anxiety, he telephoned and said he thought Brooks only did genre spoofs; Brooks replied that Hitchcock was the only filmmaker who was a genre. And it’s a genre that lives past the filmmaker, famously with the likes of De Palma and Basic Instinct, but just as heartily in indies like Blackout. Yes, there’s a dead body or two in the film, an innocent man accused, minimal settings, even some parallels of identity.
Without the budget, Blackout’s success or failure rests on two things: is it slick enough, and can its indie heart beat strongly enough to get inside our guts in the way Hitchcock would have? The best indies do so, somehow, they reach deep. Christopher Nolan’s debut Following was unabashedly psychological. Monsters may not have laid the carnage out for us, but by the time we’ve realized that it’s not going to, we don’t care — we’re there for the characters. Indies have to be slick enough to put us at ease, and then good enough to get us on board before we figure out that there’s no earth-threatening climax coming. Not an easy job.
Blackout isn’t exactly slick, but it’s probably slick enough. It’s well-lit and usually well-shot. The music’s excessive, but then it tends to be that way in recent Hollywood flicks, too. The acting is what puts you at ease. The major parts are played by actors with experience — not always the case with films this size — and it really, really shows. The dialogue lands like a big-budget production. The pauses are right. The looks are right.
The direction and editing hit a standard. Innovation is not exactly prominent, here, but it’s not necessarily the goal, either. The style is unobtrusive, and that’s okay. Certain standout moments, such as the aforementioned scene in the bar and a wonderfully dissonant sex scene, owe more to the actors and the script than they do to the people behind the camera.
The sex scene is, again, evocative. What’s it like to have sex when all you can think about is the mysterious body that turned up in your apartment? The film’s everyman protagonist and the mundanity of its world successfully become the material for its thrills — we do buy the portrayal of an “average” life, and we find it easy to juxtapose ourselves. In part, this is due to a strength not entirely common to films of this size: believable character motivations. We tend to understand unspoken motivations in Blackout, and this is another reason that we can be relaxed while watching. There’s consistency to the lives we’re watching.
Does it all fall apart at some point? Probably. As the film tries to draw its web tight, making that tenuous move between open mystery and the strands of solution, it will lose people. It’s not a perfect film. It’s probably not a good film. But it is a mirror.
That’s where the joy in Blackout lay for me, anyway, though an engaging mystery in the first half and some strong performances could be entertainment enough on their own. The film is indie Hollywood — a classical thriller on a shoestring. It’s interesting to see Hitchcock played straight in today’s world. It’s interesting to see big-budget acting and mood in a little film.
And to Blackout’s credit, it’s also interesting to ask the same big question the film does: what would you do? If you feel like an indie but don’t feel like shaky handheld and bombastic existential monologues, you could do a lot worse.