Director: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr.
Stars: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashād, Amanda Christine
This month Blumhouse Pictures are treating us to four new tricks, all available on Amazon Prime, so that we can get into the Halloween spirit from the comfort of our armchairs. One of the first up is Black Box, a sci-fi exploration of traumatic memory and the fragility of the self.
In a connection suggested by its very name, Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr.’s film feels like it could have been an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) isn’t quite himself. Six months prior to when we meet him, he was involved in a serious car accident that killed his wife, Rachel (Najah Bradley). He suffered brain damage in the accident, has significant memory gaps and is struggling to retain a job, as well as custody of his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine). In a sense Ava has become the parent in the relationship. She tries to help him remember things, prepares him for work in the morning. The child is father to the man.
Nolan embarks on an experimental form of treatment under the supervision of Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashād). Her work combines hypnosis with a new kind of technology that maps and navigates repressed memories. While sojourning in his subconscious he starts being threatened by a crunching, contorting figure with no face. Troubling as this is, all of the people in his past have their faces blurred as well. Nolan is troubled by these trips within, but Dr. Brooks is encouraging and eager to move further down the rabbit hole.
There’s an echo of Jordan Peele’s ‘sunken place’ to Lillian’s efforts – especially during their initial session – while the conceit of manipulating memory through medical technology stretches tendrils out toward Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The clickety-clackety creature stalking Nolan in his memories, meanwhile, is brought to shuddering life by contortionist Troy James, credited as ‘Backwards Man’; the querulous movements and accompanying sounds reminiscent of The Crooked Man of the Conjuring universe (use of the phrase “bend over backwards” at one point feels like darkly humorous wordplay).
Still, these touchstones aside, Black Box veers closest (by sheer coincidence) to Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (forthcoming in the UK). A mid-film swerve comes with a clunking download of exposition, but it brings Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s intentions into focus. The scary here comes from the idea that who we are could be manipulated, destroyed, even replaced. It is about the fear of erasure – be that personal or, if we explode these anxieties outwards, cultural. The blurred faces in Nolan’s subconscious speak to this further. Crowds of the unseen.
A late revelation also spins our sympathies onto a character not prominently featured early on; a somewhat thankless task handed to and handled admirably by Charmaine Bingwa. Perhaps the scariest proposition Black Box offers is the idea of never being able to escape a past abuser; of living in the shadow of victimhood.
The pace here is good, the ideas pervasive. Osei-Kuffour Jr. favours shallow focus shots and keeps his frames clean. He’s also assembled a solid stable of actors to bring credence to some of the more far-flung ideas. Athie is a fine, sympathetic lead – something that the story tests to the limit in its third act – but one of the most impressive players here is child actor Amanda Christine. Black Box has a bit of a furtive feel to it, something often to be expected of a debut feature. The ‘Welcome to the Blumhouse’ proposition seems likely to provide a showcase for a variety of promising upcoming talents and, in spite of this ethereal sense of hesitancy, Osei-Kuffour Jr. certainly does plenty to qualify.
While one can seek the broader anxieties projected by the film, it is first and foremost about people trying to piece their lives back together, by means ethical or otherwise. The longing for second chances and to rebuild, and the terrifying thought that we might simply have missed our chance. And that one person’s success must inevitably be at the expense of another’s.