By JM Mutore | Film | October 6, 2020 |
By JM Mutore | Film | October 6, 2020 |
Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s Black Box almost seems like an addendum to Get Out. It’s gauche to compare every Black-led horror production to Jordan Peele’s 2017 social thriller, but Black Box’s Blumhouse credentials and fixation with unnerving intrusions into the subconscious make such comparisons unavoidable. It’s unfortunate, though, that Osei-Kuffour’s direction and screenplay (co-written by Stephen Herman) never reach the precision which made Peele’s directorial debut an instant classic. Black Box is an innocuous, mostly dull psychological thriller, with muted characters, and a twist that doesn’t get nearly as much mileage as the filmmakers think it does. Where Get Out used every tool at its disposal to push a fresh, laser-focused social commentary, Black Box is aimless in its prioritization of mystery rather than characters or themes.
The film follows photographer Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie) as he recovers from a car accident that put him in a coma and took the life of his wife (Najah Bradley). Nolan has an elementary school-aged daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine), who must act as her father’s primary caregiver since the accident left him with severe amnesia. Nolan is lost in all aspects of his life, unable to remember his routine, his relationships, his craft as a photographer, or even his most precious memories. When it becomes clear his amnesia won’t let him properly take care of his daughter, he enters an experimental treatment conducted by neurologist Lilian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad).
Dr. Brooks utilizes a combination of hypnosis and virtual reality hardware (the titular “Black box”) to reconstruct Nolan’s lost, subconscious memories. As Nolan immerses himself in his treatment, he has to contend with faceless ghosts from his unfamiliar past, and a faceless, contortionist quadruped that is hunting him down in his own subconscious.
Stories with amnesiac main characters usually struggle to make their main characters super compelling (Captain Marvel’s biggest obstacle), and Black Box is no exception. Athie tries his best to create a sense of interiority for Nolan, but since the screenwriters deliberately wrote him as a blank slate, he spends most of the movie as a cypher. Amanda Christine carries the film’s early sections as precocious, hyper-responsible Ava. As heartbreaking as it is to watch a young girl suddenly have to become the head of her household, on top of grieving her mother, Christine’s dynamic with Athie is magnetic and their relationship works as the film’s emotional throughline. Tosin Morohunfola also shines as Nolan’s best friend, Gary.
There’s so little to say about Black Box’s characters or themes because the script is wearily ornamented around a single, lackluster twist. The twist divides the film into two smaller movies, either of which could have made for interesting dissections of memory, grief, fatherhood, and toxic masculinity if given a full feature. But Black Box’s desire for misdirection makes both of its main storylines feel super slight.
Osei-Kuffour’s direction is intermittently successful at ramping up the tension, but that probably has more to do with Black Box’s TV movie-like budget than it does with Osei-Kuffour’s visual proficiency. Nolan undergoes hypnosis in a scene that attempts to evoke the umbral isolation of Get Out’s Sunken Place, but it lacks the imagination or resources to show something more than Athie standing in a pitch dark room with a spotlight on his face. Black Box was originally produced as one of the four Welcome to the Blumhouse films coming out on Amazon this October, so instead of treating it as a standalone feature worth all your attention, it might do you better to just have it on while folding laundry like it’s an old episode of The Outer Limits.
Black Box is now on Amazon Prime.
JM Mutore was a carbon-based, NYC-based writer and film critic. Our data shows he was confined to four dimensions, but through cinema, Octavia Butler, and 4X strategy games, he occasionally found freedom. Remnants of his consciousness can be located on Twitter @JM3K.
Header Image Source: Amazon