Slow Machine - International Film Festival Rotterdam review

★★★

Directed by #JoeDenardo #PaulFelten

Starring #StephanieHayes #ScottShephard #ChloëSevigny

Film review by Nathanial Eker


‘The unbeatable slow machine that brings you what you’ll get’ goes the poem by Larkin, whose influence is both clearly and subtly littered throughout this tempting, stylish thriller. Weaving a grunge infused aesthetic and lateral narrative structure, directors Joe Denardo and Paul Felten craft an absorbing piece that captures a macabre sense of intrigue, yet ultimately fails to hone in on what exactly it’s trying to say.


Stephanie is an actor trying to make it in New York City. When a chance encounter leads her to an unorthodox relationship with NYPD specialist Gerard, her life takes an unforeseen turn. Her story told in flashes to the past, Stephanie now lives with a band of bohemians that present further complications.


There is a wonderful sense of independence to Slow Machine, both in its charismatic duo of leads and its grimy visual style, achieved through the appealing grain of filming on 16mm. Despite Felten and Denardo’s taste for unnatural, quick moving dialogue, both Stephanie and Gerard gel exceptionally, complementing one another’s performances like pieces of a dark puzzle. Their unnatural relationship keeps us guessing a thousand lines of thought. Who is this fast-talking man? Why are his moderately flirtatious lines so obtuse and obvious? Does his fiancée even exist? Is he protecting Stephanie, or intentionally causing further strain?


Gerard’s occupation in surveillance opens up the potential for cutting commentary on the ever-present, paranoia-inducing issues of privacy. Regrettably then, despite laying substantial thematic groundwork, Felten and Denardo never focus on the concrete. A ten-minute sequence (in a film that lasts only seventy) is bizarrely devoted to a fleeting side story starring Stephanie’s colleague Chloe, who auditions to a panel of faceless, androgynous, frightening people. She notes their script lacks story, but that its words are transcendent; perhaps a self-indulgent, fourth wall breaking prophecy of what the directors hoped to achieve.


Typical of an artistic, cross medium approach to filmmaking, the film’s classification of ‘thriller’ is used purely for framing. Interestingly, Slow Machine rejects notions of a singular generic definition, instead opting for the term ‘screwball thriller’. There are indeed moments of an odd comedic levity, usually characterised by the uncomfortable length of several arduous monologues. A thematic relationship with death also incites the occasional macabre giggle, due to how bluntly the players speak of such unknowable concepts.


At times, Slow Machine is visual poetry; the characters preach their subtext freely and supremely, as they assess the peculiarities of human behaviour and the nature of life and death. Despite its unique structure and fetish for tangents, the film ultimately forms an ironically traditional thriller, and an engaging one at that. Regrettably, an unfocused thematic undercurrent, pointless diversions, and bland supporting characters distract from an appealing core truth. This muddled film at worst oozes pretentiousness, yet at its best compels and challenges with a fast-paced script that soars.



#NathanialEker #IFFR #IFFR2020