This opens with an image – a gagged woman duct-taped to a chair – I think the movies should steer clear of for a decade or so, though it then loops back to earlier in the story, which takes place over a long New Year’s Eve/Day, and takes a while to catch up with this hook, which then isn’t that important to the twisty tale, which eventually replaces the woman with a guy who is more securely roped to the chair and suffers much worse tortures. Frankly, this is still a set-up that got tired in about 2005, but the film does have a bit more going for it than a retread of torture porn cliché – though the big gruesome moment (involving fingernails) has been upstaged by the more memorable abuse of the same area of a body in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Director Julius Ramsay, a TV editor who has handled a few segments of The Walking Dead, and writer Alston Ramsay, a political speechwriter, bill themselves as the Ramsay Brothers – it’d be interesting to know whether this is a deliberate homage to the Indian filmmaking dynasty who, for a while, almost had a monopoly on Bollywood horror. In any case, their debut feature is more in a line with shaggy dog noir tales of folks going to extremes over a cash stash – as seen in Blood Simple, Shallow Grave, A Simple Plan, Cheap Thrills, etc. The opening stretch, however, is more in line with Stuart Gordon’s Stuck or Very Bad Things in the ‘very bad decision’ sub-genre. Bank loans officer Lindsey (Alex Essoe, of Starry Eyes) and unemployed ex-jock husband Jeff (Dylan McTee) are grumpily driving home from a New Year’s Eve party and plough into a guy on the road … they take the sorely injured clod into the car but he seems to die on the way to hospital only to revive in the couple’s garage just in time to be shot by Lindsey’s wild child sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine, BB from Kill Bill), who is stumbling home later and turns out to have good cause to be nervous of strangers. Searching the dead man for ID, Jeff finds a slip of paper with his address written on it … and then the cops come calling and the trio don’t get their hit-a-deer story straight. It seems Hannah is on the run after the death of a dodgy boyfriend, and has access to his ill-gotten loot, which she and Jeff set out to collect. Though they bicker, both are fed up with being in overachiever Lindsey’s shadow – and proposals of betrayal are made, which soon escalate as everyone is plotting with someone else to screw over everyone else. Left to clean up the mess in the garage, Lindsey is visited by a smiling detective (Ward Horton), who has a psycho glint and notably turns up unpartnered – and is soon showing all the signs of being a major nemesis.
Most films with far-fetched stories like this try for a black comic edge, piling up bodies in a farcical manner, but this takes a more sombre, character-based tone … though only Essoe really gets enough material to chew on and comes across as conflicted enough to be worth empathising with, even if Lindsey comes over as a cold fish. McTee and Haney-Jardine are stuck with playing whiny folks you don’t want to see prosper – and Hannah in particular is too thin a character to register. The cat and mouse between Essoe and a near-demonic, chatty Horton does eventually grip, but there are a few too many gloomy longeurs when you have time to think about how contrived it is – these stories depend on people being greedy and foolish, but the twists need to come so fast that you understand why they ignore all good sense and get deeper into trouble. Here, the stakes ($50,000) are also suspiciously low, which signposts a late-in-the-day twist. On this evidence, the Ramsay Brothers can get a decent project together but probably need to look outside the family for material. Nice to see the overexposed Christmas skipped and the less-filmed, interestingly nebulous New Year holiday getting some screen time for a change.