Available on VOD Platforms
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Nathan Williams
Run Time: 94 min.
Even in the seemingly-unaltered landscape of the American West countryside, the actualization of privacy is practically unattainable in the current climate; even the most open of spaces, swaying fields free of human intervention except for the infrastructural, the various roadways carved throughout or the intermittent windmills that dot the periphery, are not free from any one person or entity dedicated to tracking one’s whereabouts or any information exchanged.
When one is in that situation, which is where we find Debra (Carol Roscoe) in Nathan Williams’ If There’s a Hell Below, that openness could inadvertently lull one into a false sense of security; that potential of an unseen vulnerability settling in for Debra is combated persistently with caution and forethought which can be misconstrued by outsiders as obsessive paranoia or, at the very least, widespread mistrust.
And, that is exactly how it is seen by Abe (Conner Marx), a small-time journalist meeting with Debra in the vast biegeness that is the Washington state countryside, hoping to get the scoop on a story that never truly reveals itself to the audience. Williams does wonders with an economic set-piece; essentially, the film boils down to two semi-strangers driving around the empty roads nimbly speaking around what is at the heart of their meeting in the first place. Despite the film’s lack of plot-points or action Williams is able to cultivate a pervading air of tension and uncertainty by focusing all of the attention on the unknown forces that may or may not be within striking distance.
Williams has confidence in the thought that the waiting is the worst part and with this in mind, he draws out instances of heightened vulnerability to anxiety-ridden levels of unease. Something is bound to happen, it is just a matter of when and how; that suspense happens to be the cornerstone of the film’s success. A success that is accomplished through its meticulous construction and the confidence of said construction. It also helps that the film benefits from the performances of its two leads – Roscoe and Marx – alongside the cinematography of Chris Messina in his capturing of the seemingly-innocent landscape.
Roscoe, as the guarded and extremely cautious (and rightfully so) NSA employee/soon-to-be whistle-blower, provides a nice counterbalance to the naivete of Abe. Her preoccupation with perceived threats a constant reminder of the stakes at hand while Abe rambles on about caterpillars and cherry blossoms. Marx, on the other hand, brings a certain genuine feel to his role of the oblivious, out-of-depth journalist that keeps the film grounded. Also, his inability to recognize and register the dangers they face and the precautions that should be taken amplify the tension, knowing his casualness will invariably lead them to ruin.
Lastly, sprinkled throughout the production are a number of visual executions that lend the film a layer of cinematic interest to go along with the increasing tension of the narrative. Subtle camera movements, here and there, that retain interest even though the film’s setup does not leave much room for experimentation in the visuals department. Most importantly, Messina and Williams are able to transmute the surrounding rolling fields of innocuous into a borderless prison of menace under the guise of an open playing field; in one memorable scene, transforming the from-a-distance windmills that dot the view into looming monoliths of swift blades foretelling.