Director/Photography – Andrew Moorman, Screenplay – Arik Martin, Based on the Play Serendipity by Arik Martin, Producers – Arik Martin & Andrew Moorman, Additional Photography – Bruce Bever, Music – Dave Hodge & Todor Kobakov, Additional Music – Ryan Demaree, Special Effects Supervisor – Richard F. Spencer, Set Design – Jason Boucher & Andrew Moorman. Production Company – Furnessville Pictures
Aaron Boucher (Dennis), Marina Shtelen (Sara), Steven Pritchard (Trip)
Trip, a bank robber on the run, bursts into a motel room with a girl Sara as his hostage where he announces that they are going to stay until he flies to Canada in a few hours time. He handcuffs her to the bed but in her attempts to get free, she snatches and swallows the key. Trip shoots her but instead wounds her in the shoulder. Trip steps out momentarily and returns to find that Dennis, a violent escaped convict, has invaded the room. Dennis grabs Trip’s gun and announces that both of them are now his hostages. The situation becomes a series of tense psychological power plays as each of them try to outmanoeuvre the other. It soon transpires that none of the group is who they initially seem to be.
Sympathy is a independently produced psycho-thriller from newcomer director Andrew Moorman. Moorman makes his feature-length debut here and based on the results is clearly a director with a future ahead of him. The film is taken from Serendipity (2001), a play from Chicago playwright Arik Martin who also writes the screenplay and co-produces the film. The John Cusack-Kate Beckinsale romantic comedy Serendipity (2001) forced a name change on the film – Andrew Moorman tells an amusing anecdote about how the new title was derived from the Rolling Stones’ song Sympathy for the Devil (1968). The film was shot independently with a cast and crew of newcomers and a budget of only $6500. Fortuitously, the play is limited to the single set of a motel room, which Moorman’s crew built inside a barn on a farm outside Chicago where they shot the film in 2004. Sympathy slowly accrued word of mouth at film festivals beginning in 2007, before being brought up for cable release in various parts of the world and receiving a dvd release in the US in 2010 from Breaking Glass Pictures.
It has been some time before I have seen a thriller that is so tightly plotted and torturously bared on a psychological level. To find one that all takes place in such a confined location, you would have to go back to something like Sleuth (1972) or maybe Deathtrap (1982), although the latter was more a film that was parodying the wild twists of thriller plots. Sympathy hits one from the opening scene when Steven Pritchard bursts into the motel room with Marina Shtelen at gunpoint and handcuffs her to the bed, where we gradually learn that he is a bank robber. Within moments, the tables have been turned as she snatches the key from his pocket and swallows it, only for him to momentarily leave the room and return to find that an escaped convict (Aaron Boucher) has burst in. There is a disturbing shot in the middle of this as Pritchard and Shtelen lie down to go to sleep and then the opening credits roll and, after they have finished, the shot cuts to the pillow and bedsheets covered in blood where we momentarily don’t know if it is a timecut, a flash forward of what is to come or what.
It is remarkable that a film confined to a single room can ratchet up so many twists but Arik Martin’s script does an excellent job of doing so. The film is like a constantly shifting game of Paper Rock Scissors between the three characters as each engage in psychological power plays for an edge in control over the others. The dramatics are beautifully played – like the scene where Marina Shtelen tries to seduce Aaron Boucher only for him to announce “Congratulations, you’ve just offered yourself to a psychopath”; or the nastiness of the scene where he forces the barrel of his gun into her mouth. It is also a film where nothing is what it seems and every assumption that one has made about each character as they entered the room or claims they have made about themselves are eventually overturned or exposed as a lie in some way. [PLOT SPOILERS] This does lead to a twist ending revealing that much of what has happened was a set-up of highly improbable contrivation, before a chilling final scene where Marina Shtelen takes the show over completely and lets it go out on a helluva sting.
The three cast members, all unknowns, do an excellent job. Aaron Boucher gives a strong and brutal performance, none the more so than some captivating monologues Arik Martin provides him about life in prison – about how to make a shiv or weapons made from socks and cakes of soap and how the prison system countered this by making all prisoners wear flip-flops and use liquid soap. Steven Pritchard is on the lightweight side but then the character is required to be a whiny bitch for most of the film and he does make an effective surprise turnaround in the end revelations. Best of the three is Marina Shtelen, from whom one expects to hear a good many more things soon. Here she is required to cover an extraordinary range – from a frightened innocent to tough, lippy sarcasm to a seductive bad girl and eventually a decidedly disturbed edge – and pulls it off with stunning results.
Andrew Moorman does an admirable job of keeping the drama tight and letting the story and performances carry the film. The only time he lets style get away with him is a scene with Marina Shtelen trying to escape from the bed and the scene briefly breaks up into split screen. It’s not a scene that requires split screen – as a storytelling device, the only possible purpose split screen can serve is when multiple pieces of narrative are happening concurrently, which they are not here, meaning that the effect is gratuitous one.