Written and Directed by Christian Nilsson
Starring Eric Tabach, Georgia Whigham, Larry Fessenden
Single location films are hard to pull off. The right filmmaker combined with the right skills can make something great out of one setting. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Rope” leap to mind as masterful, classic, examples. In the modern era, Steven Night’s “Locke” with Tom Hardy is a great example of using not only one location (a car) smartly but also in bringing out a great performance from an actor.
Many single location films are not as successful in using their sets to bring out the full dramatic potential of their stories, but when a filmmaker really digs in and lets the limited surrounding fuel their creativity, it can produce something special and unique.
On Halloween night, news editor Jake (a very good Eric Tabach) sits in his apartment editing together a story on the deaths of an a former New York Attorney General and a police officer, who seem to have shot one another.
While dealing with the condescending news reporter Tim (Zachary Booth), Jake waits for the police department to send him the dash cam footage so he can complete the assignment.
As Jake fends off an invitation to his girlfriend’s (Georgia Whigham) friend’s Halloween party, he finally receives the footage. It is too distant and without sound. A few minutes later, he receives an anonymous email that contains the full cam footage from the officer’s vest and the dash cam inside his cruiser.
The tension mounts as Jake immediately receives a phone call from a mysterious “agent” who threatens him with legal action if he were to open the second email. The threat is much more than merely litigious, as the voice on the phone is ominous and leaves Jake more than a bit shaken.
Of course, Jake opens the mysterious email and what he finds uncovers a dangerous conspiracy.
“Dashcam” is writer/director Christian Nilsson’s feature film debut. The filmmaker has credited Alan J. Pakula’s “Klute” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” as his influences in crafting the film.
I would throw in a healthy influential dose of Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” as well.
Nilsson creates real tension using only the dash cam footage (shown to us on Jake’s computer screen) and the semi-darkness of his apartment. That it all takes place on Halloween night adds an even more uneasy feeling.
In the film’s most tension-filled scene, Jake uncovers layers of audio and begins to hear something strange. As he isolates the sounds, we hear the staticky audio. The camera holds tight on his computer and cuts only to Jake’s eyes. Underscored with Nicholas Marks’ eerie Brian Eno-esque music and the disturbing sound design, the scene plays like a Horror film. It is creepy and unnerving and will paralyze you to your seat.
The film has a great visual style, as the dark neon reds of the city constantly bathe Jake’s apartment in a menacing shade of danger. When he ventures outside into the night to investigateg a possible clue, Nilsson and cinematographer Dave Brick increase the mystery and tension. Brick shoots the darkened streets as an homage to the style of the great Gordon Willis.
In films such as Coppola’s “The Conversation” and Pakula’s “Klute” and “All the President’s Men”, Willis made the sure darkness (be it on the streets, in a garage, or inside an apartment) kept the audience and characters on edge. Willis’s shadows were never safe. In this film, Brick is commended for achieving such artistic heights.
Jake communicates through video chat and email as he unravels the mystery. We are now caught in a wave of films made in this manner, due to productions being shut down over the 2020 pandemic. A lot of films were able to keep going by shooting actors over Zoom and iPhones. Most haven’t been very good, never overcoming the (unavoidable) gimmick. Nilsson’s film is the exception.
Not only does the style of the film lend itself to this time in history, but Nilsson’s story of a conspiracy involving the government using the police as their personal killing squads hits very close to home in 2021. The filmmaker does not use this to make a statement, nor does he grandstand in presenting his tale. Nilsson assures his film grabs hold of its drama, keeping a tight grip throughout.
Christian Nilsson has crafted an intensely interesting picture filled with impending peril and paranoia. His direction is skillful and his ability to create and contain the film’s tone throughout assures that he is a filmmaker to watch.
With its reliable lead performance, excellent direction, and alarming real-world dangers, “Dashcam” is a frighteningly plausible thriller and one of 2021’s best surprises.
NR, 88 Minutes, Gravitas Ventures, Hood River Entertainment, TXE