Fear from scares and guilt in ‘Unfriended’
My grandfather has a few days left to live. My father told me that on Saturday. I felt my body tightening as we spoke. There are acting techniques to communicate closing yourself off to someone, but the truth is that they’re not techniques -- they’re plain old body language. My right arm crossed my chest. My left hand went to my chin. I leaned on a door frame, hiding half my body.
What did I feel? I didn’t know yet. The feelings were only peeking through. My emotions are an open book to my friends, but I’m reserved around my family. No reason, it’s just the way I am. I reassured my dad, but not very well.
I’m a critic. I had a movie to see that night, so I went. I missed the showing by 15 minutes. I got angry. I finally felt it. I just needed a trigger. I called my best friend in a manic state and talked to him about everything but what was really on my mind. I didn’t bring it up. What was I going to say? I talked to him until the next showing.
And then I saw a movie about confession.
I tell you this because sometimes moments happen as they need to, not as you intend. I want you to understand the lens through which I saw “Unfriended.”
First off, what is it? The whole movie is one big Skype conversation. Six friends in high school talk online via camera. We’re watching a single computer screen for the entire movie. We can see the other friends via cameras on their phones or laptops, and we’ll cut away for minutes at a time to a conversation via text or frantic Google searches.
These six friends all share something in common, a bullied friend named Laura who committed suicide exactly one year ago on the night. Turns out there’s a ghost in the machine. Literally. They’re terrorized, blackmailed, and murdered one-by-one as the night goes on. If they leave the computer, they die.
There’s a fine line between gimmicky and bravely experimental. Sometimes, the only difference is quality. “Unfriended” works. It works incredibly well. The script is tight and effective, and the editing is so good you won’t notice a single cut.
If this were on stage, it would be a locked room play, where six characters unravel each others’ secrets and elicit confessions until the answer to a mystery is revealed. The mystery, in this case, is who caused Laura’s suicide.
Some ideas in the script are simplistic, but that’s perfectly fine when you execute them this well. We’ll see some murders, too. They aren’t the film’s standout moments, but the tension’s ratcheted so high, you’ll accept them pretty willingly.
The chief issue with “Unfriended” is the bar to entry. If you’ve never used a social network, video conferencing, YouTube, or an online video library, you might fail to notice many subtle touches that build the dread. If you’re familiar with them, it’s remarkable how well “Unfriended” takes some of the most commonplace moments in our online existence and turns them on their heads. I never imagined I’d get a chill up my spine from a missing exit program button. If you aren’t at least familiar with this kind of online life, you may bounce off significant portions of the movie.
“Unfriended” addresses real concerns of online and youth bullying, and how we fail to take responsibility for our own actions in a world that marries the real-life and online halves of how we represent ourselves.
For all its terror, it becomes surprisingly bittersweet in its final moments. It truly builds to something more meaningful than the average slasher film or POV horror movie. It talks to us about the regrets we have, the time we didn’t spend better, the relationships we failed at or never put enough effort toward realizing. If you can hang with its style, “Unfriended” is a movie that will scare and thrill you, that may reinforce some valuable lessons, and that may ask you to reflect on aspects of your own life.
For me, I’m reserved with my family. No reason, it’s just the way I am. I was reserved with my grandfather, too, and I haven’t always done the best job of showing him I love him. That’s where “Unfriended” got me. It’s intense and it’s riveting, but it also makes you face your own regrets and confess them quietly to yourself in the darkness of the theater.
Three-and-a-half out of four stars. I am astounded by how well “Unfriended” works. It is rated R for violence, language, sexuality, and drug use.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at email@example.com.
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