This brooding, low key thriller debut from director Todd Levin seems at first glance to be trying really hard to look unusual and mysterious and atmospheric, and it pulls a last act switcheroo on the viewer put there specifically to transform our understanding of a set of events leading up to it which had previously appeared to constitute merely another incursion into that recently well-rehearsed subgenre bracket known as ‘the Home Invasion’ thriller. Unfortunately both the initial execution of what is by now an over familiar trope, and the supposed pay-off to it, meant to raise the narrative to another level, feel hackneyed and unimaginative to the extent that I don’t think I’ve seen many other films recently so resounding in their utter failure to surprise me at any point. This is a curiously structured piece of work in many ways: you actually only have to be at least half awake during the opening five minutes of it in order to be able to guess exactly what’s going on by about half-an-hour into proceedings -- and that’s before the main thrust of the narrative has even got properly underway. The only question mark that remains over it after that point turns on what contrived reasons will be vouched at the end to explain the behaviour of certain characters earlier in the film, in order to get the story to appear to conform to genre type up until the point when we’re given the big ‘reveal’ that supposedly ‘makes sense’ of it all.
But really, if you’re aiming to make the type of movie that sets the audience up to expect one sort of genre experience in order to reveal that it’s really all been about something else entirely all along, it would be wiser to make at least one of those themes appear to be at least in some way original or diverting. “Static” feels forced and unconvincing in its contorted efforts to contrive its pay-off conclusion, and it’s one that still manages to appear clumsy, even though I’d guessed it well in advance of delivery.
Levin starts us off in a sombre and reflective mood: successful young writer Jonathan Dade (Milo Ventimiglia -- “Heroes”) has just finished his latest work in the comfortable surroundings of a luxury rented villa overlooking a picturesque lake, which reflects in its un-rippled surface peaceful woodlands that line acres of Californian ranch estate wilderness. He’s here with his wife Addie (Sarah Shahi) who has been left very much to her own devices, roaming the empty house and vast grounds by herself until her husband’s novel-in-progress is complete. But it turns out that both are actually still in the thrall of a deep-set grief brought about by the loss of their three-year-old son Thomas, who drowned in an accident at the lake on the edge of the property. There are also unresolved issues of trust, particularly for Addie, who harbours supressed anger at a supposed infidelity Jonathan may have committed in the past. Neither party seems able to deal openly with the pain of their loss and inhabit this strangely lifeless and flat rural landscape (which looks like Sylvan bliss, yet highlights the couple’s disconnection through the great physical distance it places between them) like they’re people who are lost to themselves as well as each other.
Then, in the middle of the night, after they’ve attempted to celebrate the completion of Jonathan’s latest manuscript, a persistent knocking at the door forces Jonathan to let a frightened young woman called Rachel (Sara Paxton – “The Innkeepers”, “Last House on the Left”) inside their property. The frantic girl claims to have been stalked by a group of hooded men wearing gasmasks, who forced her car off the road and have chased her up to the front door of the Dades’ house. Naturally, the phones don’t seem to work and the police cannot be contacted, and so it is left up to Jonathan and Addie to decide how to respond to this bizarre and threatening situation. Jonathan leaves his distrustful wife in the company of the stranded woman while he goes outside to investigate Rachel’s story, finding her abandoned car amid signs that it has indeed been forced off the road deliberately, just as she had said. But there is something very odd and suspicious about this new arrival: she seems to know more than she initially lets on about the couple now sheltering her, while somehow insidiously prying into their personal grief in an invasive manner. Addie soon takes against her, and suspects she might be some sort of crazed fan who has simply made up this insane story as a means of inveigling her way into the couple’s home.
But then shadowy, silent men wearing gasmasks really do appear … and somehow manage to force their way inside the house. Their aims and intentions remain unclear, but Jonathan and Addie are forced to barricade themselves in the upstairs suite while they desperately formulate a plan of escape …
There’s not too much more that can be said about this without blowing the easy-to-guess-anyway ‘twist’: Levin’s direction is efficient but always utterly uninspiring; the performances are okay and are proficient enough as far as the half-baked material goes, with both Ventimiglia and Shahi managing to look suitably morose and sad about their characters’ loss while drumming up necessary amounts of panicky looks and agitated confusion as the weirdness around them multiplies; meanwhile, Paxton gets to do her by-now-patented, cute-slacker-chick-with-an-edge shtick yet again. Even so, there’s something altogether bland and workmanlike about the whole thing. What happens to Rachel after the strange invaders initially appear? Why does the couple’s old baby monitor keep being found mysteriously switched on in the dead child’s untouched room? What is the meaning of the high-pitched radio frequency tuning noises that can be heard whenever the hooded figures emerge from the shadows? There are various clues given fairly early on, but they seemed rather too heavy handed and sort of give the game away much too early. The hooded figures themselves never seem to drum up all that much threat and just lurk around in the dark while the two protagonists run through the usual gamut of activities generally associated with people in films dealing with a home invasion situation: Jonathan attempts to make a break for it in order to try and reach a security safe in his office where he keeps a loaded gun; Addie contrives to step on some broken glass in the dark while wearing no shoes, thus upping the tension and jeopardy (or at least that’s probably the idea). Meanwhile, whether it’s hiding from an assailant in the clothes’ closet or attempting to make a getaway in a car that won’t start -- you name the cliché and it crops up here eventually! It’s all leading dutifully up to a collection of initially confusing reveals about the gasmask men and the true nature of their task, but by then I just wasn’t particularly buying the premise and even if I had been inclined to, it could have been handled a great deal more imaginatively than it is here.
“Static” is a film that you cannot completely slate or dismiss as being particularly badly made; It’s just there … at best a dated “Twilight Zone” episode or a routine thriller like all those other films that, a few months after they come out on DVD, will get lost amongst the hundreds of other nondescript horror thriller items found streaming on a Netflix or a LOVEFiLM Instant service near you. This UK release from Second Sight is a bare bones affair, with the choice of stereo or 5.1 Surround audio tracks but nothing included in the way of extras, not even a trailer.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!