Something new is also something stupid—and is maybe something great, but it's really hard to tell.
2014 Espana/Estados Unidos
Escrita y dirigida por Nacho Vigalondo
Con Elijah Wood (Nick Chambers), Sasha Grey (Jill Goddard), y Neil Maskell (Chord)
¡La alerta del spoiler!: moderado
You could describe Open Windows as a "high concept thriller" if you wanted to be gentle about it, but the movie isn't gentle, and I don't see why you should be, either. Let's call it what it is: a gimmick. Yet it's a gimmick that poses a seemingly-impossible filmmaking challenge, one that Windows negotiates with extraordinary success for very nearly its entire runtime.
Windows' gimmick is maybe the first new thing I've seen in a movie since Russian Ark. There, for the first time in a narrative picture, a physically-captured long take was accomplished at a feature's length. The problem with Russian Ark is that it also sucks. Open Windows does not suck; or rather, it does suck, and in ways that should be fatal, yet aren't. I didn't get a chance to do what I almost feel like I need to do with Windows—watch it again. But I also wanted to, and that suggests that it's at least a very good movie. If it took any other form, I can hardly imagine it being even an acceptable one.
The animating spirit of Nacho Vigalondo's crazy experiment, in case you didn't know, is that it takes place entirely upon a single laptop's screen, in real time, in its own simulacrum of a single 100-minute long take. Every action and idea is conveyed by various applications running on the computer's desktop in all their many open windows, hence the name. One wonders which came first, however—the clever title representing the formal attributes of the film, or the batshit Hitchcock pastiche of the cyberthriller plot.
Given that title, I'd bet it was the Hitchcock pastiche, but with all due respect to the old, dead Master of Suspense, Windows is more indebted to the old, still-living Master of Mega-Suspense, Brian De Palma, and not just because Windows' plot developments track those of Body Double—and, surreally, Mission: Impossible—a lot more closely than anything as prosaically explicable as Rear Window. No, it's also because Vigalondo's granted this particular De Palmaniac's deepest wish, and given me something I've asked for, time and time again. Namely, he's given me Motherfucking Splitscreen: The Motion Picture.
And is it rad? It is almost entirely rad. The only times when Windows is not entirely rad, formally speaking, are in a few minutes at the beginning, which rapidly become rad, and during a few minutes near the end, when it seems awfully close to abandoning its wonderful hyper-artificiality in favor of mere found-footage garbage; thankfully, it backs away and arrives, in the depth of its finale, at a deeply strange, possibly non-diegetic, bluntly-metaphorical representation of our 21st century glasshouse. By the end, its human objects have been fragmented into a hundred smaller frames, each frame representing an image relayed by the innumerable cameras that fill our electric panopticon. Do you get it? Good.
Before returning to the merits of Vigalondo's direction, a belated encapsulation of his plot would be beneficial, though this is also where we run into most of the film's problems, because Windows is the Preposterous Thriller to beat them all. There is a moment when a character actually blurts out "It always makes sense in the end!", and this is a lie. Windows is probably not, also, the single least reality-based hacking film to ever exist—but that's only because its subgenre positively wallows in nonsense, from Gog through WarGames to Swordfish. It's only natural that when Windows finds it convenient that computer science be a brand of sorcery, hacking is entirely capable of, say, flipping on a light switch in a hotel room, amongst many, many other feats to beggar belief.
But no, it's not the fantastic elements of Windows that most eagerly stimulate the WTF gland, but its half-insane, half-contrived, half-impossible twists and turns. And if you did a little bit of math there and found out that added up to one and a half film's worth of possible frustration, you didn't miss something. Windows is this year's The Counselor: the movie that I'm pretty sure I personally love, but could hardly in good conscience recommend to anyone else.
Windows begins at its lowest ebb, with a movie-within-a-movie, and Vigalondo makes the same mistake filmmakers always make with such things: he treats it like a joke, and so it looks like shit that not even Hunger Games fans would ever pay to watch. Indeed, it's so immediately awful that it began to burn up my massive goodwill toward the project, though it's only onscreen for a few minutes. Windows' terrible fictional film is supposedly the new entry to a hugely successful Hollywood franchise, headlined by its star, Jill Goddard.
Belatedly, we realize it's just a webcast preview clip, being watched by someone else; it is followed by a panel interview with Jill and her director, and it is interrupted, increasingly compulsively, by a showy screencapture program. Indeed, the beginning may be bad enough to demand the urgent intervention of Elijah Wood, but intervene he most decisively does—and it'll save time to just let you know when I dislike an Elijah Wood performance, as that will probably be "never." He is the perfect star for these neo-classicist films, the modern Jimmy Stewart, the nice guy with an inner weirdness that films like Maniac and Grand Piano let free, to romp like the mind of an off-center God. He does nothing of particular note in this film, I suppose, except be basically perfect in every scene he's in, which henceforward is almost all of them. Armed now with its actor, within the next few minutes the film begins ramping up to Warp 10, where it will achieve infinite velocity, occupying all points in spacetime simultaneously.
Nick Chambers is the name of the above-pictured hyperventilating nerd, webmaster of the unsettling fansite www.jillgoddard-caught.com. He has, in a serendipitous turn, "won" an "online contest" to have "dinner" with the object of his unhealthy obsession; and he's now getting a Skype request from an unknown number, a vindictive man named Chord who claims to be a producer on her awful movie, who's calling to inform him the "date" is "cancelled" at her request. But as Jill just happens to be staying in the same hotel as he is, in the room across the way, and she just happens to be about to have sex with her agent, and Nick just happens to have a camera, well, why not take a bit of "justified" "revenge"?
If you're familiar with Body Double, or screenplays in general, you can more or less see where this is heading. Nick's creepy prurience is immediately turned against him and he is marked out as an accomplice to increasingly degenerate acts, including battery, kidnapping, torture, extortion, and finally a nervy and thematically worthwhile sexual assault, which I hope to dwell on a little bit below. The precise point where the film sails right off the Ludicrous Cliff can be debated, but it never stops falling. The full-body contortions of Chord's scheme in Windows, and Nick's even more-disjointed countermoves, make the baroque machinery of the mastermind's plans in Vertigo look as straightforward as picking up a gun and shooting Kim Novak in the head.
What keeps Windows from flying apart as it hurtles into the abyss is the expertise of a true splitscreen artist. Vigalondo keeps our focus moving, always moving, from window to window to window, from bullshit plot point to bullshit plot point to bullshit plot point. In one window is the menacing British voice of Jill's mad "producer"; in another is a Parisian hacking trio decked out in unused Devo costumes; in yet a third we spy the mysterious lair of a Gibson-hacking god named Nevada; and in a fourth and fifth, two angles cover a car chase, one from a webcam on the dashboard and the other from the laptop's own camera in the passenger seat. Windows is a stream of high-proof information coming at precisely the right pace to remain intoxicating without becoming nauseating—just slowly enough to (barely) discern what's occurring, or supposed to be occurring, and far, far too fast to properly formulate the questions you know each scene raises.
This is, at least, how it appeared to me, on a 55" TV. The irony of Vigalondo's design is that it almost certainly requires as big a screen as possible in which to fit itself; watching Open Windows on an actual window in an actual laptop would beam out such concentrated insanity it could, perhaps, set your eyes aflame.
Now we discuss the elephant: Windows' trashy science fantasy has, by unhappy accident, tracked the science fact of the recent compromise of thousands of racy celebrity selfies. I can see the basic appeal (naked ladies!), but I don't really see the particular appeal (naked, specific ladies who feel genuinely violated!). It certainly makes no sense, when exabytes of hardcore material made by hundreds of thousands of consenting sex performers exists, fitting every possible type, feeding every possible fetish, and most of the impossible ones, too. But certainly the demand is there, and Windows' two most interesting scenes practically vivisect it. The second scene I can't mention, lest I spoil one of its more tremendous surprises—though you would know it immediately, for subtle it ain't—but the first I've already alluded to.
It's customary to refer to Sasha Grey as a bad actress. This is trivially untrue; working in pornography may not be conventional, Calculon-like ACTING, but it's still the relation of emotional states through control of the physical body. By any metric, Grey is one of the best pornographic actors in the genre's history. As far as her career in narrative film has heretofore gone, however, "Sasha Grey is a bad actress" can be argued earnestly, and it can still be argued earnestly for some of her scenes here; but not all of them.
Grey's break into "legitimate" cinema came courtesy Steven Soderbergh and The Girlfriend Experience, which was possibly the worst film for any new actor to find herself in, content as it was to teach Grey nothing about anything while hollowly exploiting her adult entertainment background for some kind of vague and largely-inaudible resonance. Windows exploits it, too, but Windows does it in a way that actually has a fighting chance of making anyone give a shit, and Grey is pitch-perfect in its pivotal moment.
Or at least this pivotal moment, insofar as Windows has about ten of them, varying wildly in quality and plausibility.
Since thriller mechanics demand that we identify with our Wrong Man, or at least not hate him, it's not long before Nick's own native unpleasantness is far outrun by the string-pulling supervillain. Nick is required, Seven-style, to put Chord's burgeoning plan of sexual extortion into instant messaging text. Jill herself is compelled to strip and smile before the eye of her own co-opted webcam. Grey manages the scene with shaded, conflicted grace, anchoring it in such an immediacy that you almost don't notice that the metanarrative has just kicked into high gear. Here, a beautiful star disrobes under very bad circumstances, yet out in audienceland we know there is no point to this terror: a hundred hours of the very same woman, in states of undress one can scarcely imagine, is already at our fingertips. But that's not the ask. The goal isn't to see her, but to hurt her. It was never, really, about anything else.
If another scene—including the blunter one Windows offers later—could do a better job of summing up the recent celebrity selfie scandal and the immense depravity it revealed, I cannot imagine how. Maybe Blackhat will fit something in between exploding nuclear reactors and Chris Hemsworth's push-ups, but I kind of doubt it. The worst you can say about Windows' message is that the end mildly fucks it up (and I hesitate to even hint at how). But it does not and cannot change the revelatory moment, nor degrade its clear signal.
So, do I, after all, recommend it? It has Elijah Wood, a fully-functioning gimmick, dumbassed twists galore, and a surprisingly relevant stab at meaning. I can't recommend it. I totally recommend it.