In recent years, a torrent of gimmicky films have attempted to distinguish themselves from the already burgeoning film population: note the surge in 3D, found-footage and meta-films. Unfortunately, films cannot survive on gimmicks alone. Thus, we have a dichotomy of films — ones that use gimmicks for the sake of being gimmicky (the way a hipster might strive for originality for originality’s sake) and those that are truly original and happen to utilize a gimmick. Director Gabe Torres’ Brake is the latter. Brake is a contained thriller: almost the entire film is set within the trunk of a car.
Secret service agent Jeremy Reins (Stephen Dorff) wakes up at the back of a car — actually, he wakes up in a glass container at the back of a car. Overhead, a timer repeatedly counts down to ominous zeroes, at which point something bad always happens. It’s soon revealed that Rein’s captors want to extract top secret information from him like the president’s bunker location and codename. Rein’s tormentors use increasingly painful methods — one of them involves bees.
Many critics have compared Brake to Rodrigo Cortes’ 2010 film Buried. Admittedly, both films have similarities. The most obvious of these is that both spend the entirety of the movie in a box as the protagonist is interrogated by terrorists. Less obviously, both films contain political undertones that suggest some frustration with the American government. But the similarities end there.
While Buried was a slow and unrelenting descent into one man’s desperation, “Brake is basically an action film in a box,” Torres said. True, both films are about men in boxes, but in context Brake is actually a thriller about national security, resting on one man’s strength to adhere to an oath to protect the president. Along the way, we get a series of thrilling sequences through the power of suggestion. There are the usual plot devices — Reins is give a CB radio and also manages to get a cell phone halfway through the film.
But the brilliance of the film lies in its subtle mechanisms. “Our goal was to create the illusion of motion,” Torres says.
Director of photography James Mathers manages to bring the action occurring outside the van into Reins’ trunk with some creativity. Mathers’ camerawork is surprisingly fluid, moving from static shots to violent hand-cam ones for car chases. He also uses barely perceptible light shifts to imply movement outside the car. Also notable is the sound editing, which is most laudable during the film’s car chases.
But perhaps the best part of the contained-thriller gimmick is the sense of paranoia it instills in the audience. The number of things that are overtly suggested, such as car chases and shootouts are equaled by the number of covertly suggested ideas. And this is by far the best use of the box in Brake. While the contained thriller may simply be a penny pincher’s way of creating an action film, it plays directly towards the paranoid thriller genre by withholding information from the audience, leaving it as disoriented as the character inside the box.
The last stand-out performance, the only performance in the colloquial sense of the word, is Stephen Dorff’s performance. When asked about his choice of actors, Torres said, “Not a lot of actors would have taken on this movie cause everything hangs on them. If the movie fails, the failure hangs on the actor … I knew Stephen wouldn’t be afraid of taking on the camera by himself.”
Dorff has been known to take on interesting films, especially distinctly indie titles. In the recent past, Dorff has starred in an unrelentingly stoic film — Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere. Despite some complaints about the actual film, Dorff’s performance in the film was decidedly true to the ennui of celebrity life. From Somewhere to Brake, Dorff shows off the full spectrum of his talent.
As Reins gets pushed to the edge, he releases more and more rage; these scenes involve sustained kicking and screaming. In the wrong hands, these scenes would have killed the film which already requires a high suspension of disbelief. But luckily, Dorff goes beyond the call of duty and serves as the reality anchor through what is, in retrospect, quite the fantastical plot.
Brake is a triumph of low-budget filming; it captures all the intensity of a regular Hollywood film. In the sea of films released this year, Brake is surely one of the more unique ones. It deserves to be experienced purely based on this merit.
“I’m really proud of the way it turned out. I wouldn’t have changed anything about [Brake],” Torres said.
Torres is an avid supporter of the independent film industry. He will be conducting Question and Answer sessions at screenings of Brake at Cinemapolis on April 13 and April 14.