I’m as much of a digital hoarder as I am a physical one. Thanks to Netflix’s flat monthly fee and a gallery of front covers to scroll through, I developed a habit of adding interesting looking movies to my queue. Similiar to my overflowing DVDs and games, movies stay unwatched on my instant list until Netflix guts their collection, effectively doing me a favor.
I based my interest in Open Windows on the cover art. Former hardcore gonzo porn star turned mainstream actress Sasha Grey? Next to Elijah Wood? Now there’s a pairing I never expected to see without aid of some psychoactive substance. It’s time to look into this matter.
The movie is set up like A Found Footage film for the Internet generation. It’s a one-shot take of a single laptop screen with several live streams open on a desktop. The camera pans to another window to show action in a different location, creating the illusion that one is watching a cyberspace crisis unfolding in real-time.
Sasha Grey plays Jill Goddard, a mainstream Hollywood actress under heavy pressure. At a press conference following a premiere, she tries keeping a straight face amid allegations that she may have a leaked sex tape. Jill is the typical celebrity hounded and harried by tabloid journalism, though we do find out she’s banging her agent Tony (Iván González).
Nick (Elijah Wood) is Jill’s biggest fan and the webmaster of her official fansite. He watches the press conference from a hotel room, having won a contest to have dinner with Jill. He is contacted via voice chat by ‘Chord’ (Neil Maskel), Jill’s campaign manager, who informs Nick that Jill canceled the dinner.
Chord is an omnipotent, omnipresent master of all things online and electronic. Able to hack into anything on a whim, he offers Nick a consolation prize: backdoors into Jill’s cellphone and laptop webcams, allowing Nick to spy on her every private moment. Nick, though reluctant, follows along.
Any joy over peeping on Jill is short-lived, as Chord’s true agenda is a convoluted plot to kidnap Jill and goad Nick into a twisted mind game. Soon Nick is out of the hotel room with a sudden need to Rescue the Girl as he tails Chord and his victim down the highway. Along the way, a French hacker trio contacts Nick. They mistake him for ‘Nevada,’ ahacktivist hero responsible for every online triumph for justice in the past decade and a half. There is debate over whether Chord is the real Nevada, a counter argument that Chord couldn’t be Nevada because Nevada is Internet Jesus, and so on, so forth.
What starts as commentary on voyeurism, privacy, and online ethics devolves into a cyberspace thriller when the car chase begins. I have a problem with movies that switch to a different genre just as I’ve settled into them. I’ve seen films that managed to pull this off, but Open Windows is not one of them. In the same way that tonal shifting makes my brain hurt, this bait-and-switch feels like I tried too hard at a headbanging contest. If you’re going to present an uncomfortable psychosexual mindscrew then keep it that way. If you want an action thrill ride then outline it in the introductory paragraph.
I get what writer/director Nacho Vigalondo is trying to say. The problem is his message is scattered amid the confusion, and keeping up becomes more of a chore with every new twist and red herring. Vigalondo brings the movie back to voyeurism at random intervals, such as the scene where Nick is forced to make Jill strip lest Tony get electrocuted, or another where Chord tells millions of Internet viewers that he’ll murder Jill unless they stop watching. They don’t.
Casting Sasha Grey as Jill Goddard is no accident, as Vigalondo uses her ex-porn status to further his thesis. Because every Millennial has either watched her past exploits or otherwise recognizes her by name, putting her character center frame in the lead male’s gaze alludes to the obvious. In a way Vigalondo is saying that we are the voyeurs, especially if we’re watching Open Windows because of Grey’s top billing. Does that mean Vigalondo is comparing porn to voyeurism? Is he therefore saying porn is inherently bad?
It’s hard for me critique Sasha Grey’s performance. She switches between two modes here: deadpan face or screaming in panic. The other non-porn vehicle I have seen her in was The Girlfriend Experience, where she also acted tired and apathetic. She is either not a good actress or she’s like Samuel L. Jackson, who is great but at his best when he’s angry and threatening. In Grey’s case, perhaps she’s suited for playing characters desperate to be elsewhere.
Elijah Wood is a great choice for this; or rather, he would be if Open Windows stuck to its premise. His pasty 30-something face is the perfect representation of your typical shut-in Internet creep. But Open Windows loses that effect when it becomes this different movie. They could have cast Channing Tatum or Ron Perlman and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Furthermore, Open Windows is an independent film that borrows from Hollywood’s interpretation of magical hacking and cyberspace infiltration. Lines of code crawlon the screen and animated graphics spin beside stylish widgets. Also, everyone keeps commenting that Nick’s laptop is a crappy budget model. If that’s the case, why is he able to display so many live streams at once without a single lag? It’s like his economy rig nevertheless has a GPU developed by NORAD.
If the setting remained in the hotel room, the theme stayed focused on Internet peeping toms and Nick had been an actual scrub turned unlikely hero then Open Windows could have benefited from a narrower focus. Instead it tries to be too damn much, and the result is a mess that forgets its identity.
One final note. A blurb quote caught my attention when I watched the trailer:
That’s a bold statement to make regardless of whether or not the movie is “the 21st Century Rear Window,” especially if that isn’t the case. Open Windows is not “the 21st Century Rear Window” for many reasons, chief among them the fact the 1954 Hitchcock classic had consistency. If anything, Open Windows is “the 21st Century Hackers.” If I’m being honest it’s “the 21st Century Night Trap,” since the computer screen aesthetic felt like I was watching a Let’s Play of an old Sega CD FMV game.
FINAL GRADE: C-