“Gimmick” is a word that critics and viewers throw out with wanton abandon for films like Unfriended, and this film invites the usage. It is a lazy, amorphous critique thrown out whenever a film tries something new. It was a gimmick when Stanley Kubrick brought in cinematographer John Alcott to film Barry Lyndon as if it was an 18th century painting so that he could dissect the falsity and artifice in the lifestyles of the film’s characters, explore the ways in which film is always fictional, discover the limits of cinematic attempts at “realism”, and champion cinema all the same for the ways it can use fiction to explore the cosmic regions that lie in the murky waters beyond realism. What matters is not that it was a gimmick, but whether it was an effective gimmick, and, in that particular case, it was a masterful one, perfectly suited to its film and alive as passionate cinema.
Unfriended isn’t all that scary. This much is no surprise; horror movies generally aren’t. But why Unfriended isn’t scary, not that is a tale worth telling. We begin with its gimmick: Unfriended is the story of five teenagers being haunted and systematically killed of by the ghost of a friend they tormented and cyber-bullied into committing suicide, and the entire story is told on the computer-screen of one of the characters. Never once, not for the roughly 90 minute run-time, do we ever glance anywhere outside of the bounds and limits of this computer screen. The results of which are a very alien, detached film, a work of poor, limited characterization and half-hearted developments that does little beyond find a new way to tackle a tired, hackneyed slasher story with characters who grow weary by the minute and die in exactly the order anyone who has seen a single slasher film will predict within moments of the characters’ assembly on screen together.
Now, back to a “gimmick” fitting its story: Unfriended is a decent, even good, film, and it is entirely because of its gimmick. But that is what a gimmick is. Detached from its visual style, Barry Lyndon is a dramatically inert work with lazy acting and deceptive writing. But filtered through its masterful filmmaking gimmick, those are all plusses for a film about the limits of drama and characters who are themselves false human beings; the laziness is an ingredient, and the gimmick the binding element. For a gimmick, as it is conventionally used, is little more than a short-hand for “new technique dominating a particular work” when people aren’t yet comfortable with the technique and wish to back-hand it. What we have to ask is whether the gimmick of Unfriended serves an effective purpose, and whether it is married to the necessities of the film it serves.
Simply put, the limits of Unfriended are also its point. We aren’t living these characters’ lives so much as watching them swim around in an aquarium of their own making, their own internalized prison externalized by the technologies of their own making. It is this that ultimately saves Unfriended, selling the gimmick with passion and gusto and committing with only minor dalliances with self-doubt and under-confidence. Unfriended doesn’t sympathize with its characters. It exists above them, sinisterly crawling into their souls and letting us watch the fireworks. If there is a certain distance that comes with the property, what is lost is more than made-up for in festering dread and the film’s own self-conscious existence as an observer.
How does the gimmick fit in? It isn’t exactly Kubrick, but the way Unfriended operates as a form of technology itself, never giving us the truth of these character’s lives and tacitly drawing out the connections between itself and the characters ,is a small revelation. Specifically, what we have is a film that defines its characters as types and lightly exposes the ways in which it is itself limited in its understanding of who they are, subverting certain expectations about who these teenagers are while holding true to others. It knows it can’t actually explore their lives in full; it’s a snapshot, in other words, a work that innately calls on short-hand characterizations to fill in the lives of its protagonists by allowing audiences to stereotype the characters and connect the dots to existing film archetypes.
Exactly, as it turns out, like we do on the internet. The way Unfriended unfolds, snap-shoting its characters lives and never much paying heed to formal characterization, mimics the internet-baiting intentions of the film to a T. It’s a textbook case of turning a flaw – poor characterization and detachment from the characters – into a strength, reminding us of the ways that these characters are lazily depicted and underdeveloped because we, in all our eminent knowledge, can only construct lazy, half-hearted characterizations from computer screens. Through media, in other words, we can only construct the broadest of outlines as to who people are. Truth of not, this is the film’s thesis, and as an object of fiction itself, as a work that is ultimately an internet-age snapshot into people’s lives, it achieves exactly this collision of distance and dejection.
More than anything then, Unfriended is an examination of how a visual device is a storytelling mechanism for good and band; it works because it itself is a visual device that is a storytelling mechanism, exploring how teenagers go about solving problems on the internet just as we go about solving problems in a film. As it turns out, just as they are sometimes hindered by the limits of that technology and their own inability to pursue other means of knowledge, so too are we the audience limited in our reliance on cinema that can’t necessarily tell us as much about the human condition as we think it can. Unfriended is a gimmick about the limits of its gimmick, in other words, a work about how its gimmick – telling a story via a computer screen – is a failure as a storytelling and characterization mechanism, always leaving us distant and dispassionate when we ought to be thrust into the story and the characters head first.
This doesn’t even begin to explore some of the more fascinating visual trickery on display here, and how it is married to the storytelling in surprisingly satisfying and revealing ways. Unfriended uses a computer screen as a canvas not only to depict the lives of teenagers and to critique the way it depicts the lives of these teenagers, but to play around with physical space in thoroughly exciting ways. The simple act of blocking and framing achieves a new artistry here, with director Levan Gabriadze tackling the ways that space can be manipulated on a screen to box off human faces during a Skype call – trapping them with their own technology – or to hide and reveal information through physical space. The harsh menagerie of hard angles and square spaces alone creates an intensely jagged, disconcerting view of computer life that thoroughly matches to the horrors on screen. Even better, it evokes certain ways in which we block off our understanding of others when we speak to them, rearranging our thoughts and concerns through the sociospatial region of a screen as an external representation of personal interests.
So there you have it. Not really a horror film, but a commentary on horror films, and a surprisingly studied, literate one at that. Now, this is admittedly severely difficult to defend for the general public; it is after all a work about its own inadequacy, but if you have a bone for this sort of self-deprecating intellectual treatise, there are pleasures aplenty here. Still, flawed it cannot but be, and not only in the ways it wishes to be flawed. Coming hot on the heels of It Follows only hurts the film by exposing some of the ways it cannot bridge its higher-level ambitions and explorations with tried-and-true bone-crunching gut-level filmmaking, and this is a slight disappointment. It leaves the film playing better in the head than it does on the screen; it tries so much to succeed in obtuse, even accidental, ways that it’s a sharp little demon but always a distant, cryptic, even alienating one.
And it is all the more startling for the mildewy, rotted woodwork from which it was spawned. Films, after all, do not exist in a vacuum, and expectations matter. Unfriended takes our expectations, even our expectations that it will be a horror film, and casually throws them off to the side. It doesn’t all come together as well as it could; we spend most of the last thirty minutes, when the film’s bevy of formal inventions have played their hand and passed on, watching something bored with its own inadequacy and determinism. This section doesn’t achieve much at all, and it eventually devolves into a cruel, even disdainful, attack on today’s youth from the position of an adult that is ultimately more sickly shrill and less playful than it should be. But let no one say it doesn’t commit to alchemizing its gimmick. It doesn’t necessarily succeed, but it tries, and it tries in ways most horror films can’t even imagine.