Every time I have to order an Uber ride, a faint little voice whispers in my ear, “hey, this guy could be a total creep, and will most likely chop you up into tiny pieces, then feed you to his fish...
...I’m just trying to help!” Most of the time, I can drown out that paranoid whisper with a reassuring thought, but sometimes, listening to our gut instinct could save our lives. Writer/director Tyler Savage aims to strike fear into one of life’s most common conveniences with Blinders, which just had its UK Premiere at this year’s FrightFest. For his main character, Andy (Vincent Van Horn), that little voice wasn’t quite loud enough.
Seeking a new lease on life, Andy has moved from Dallas, Texas to Los Angeles, California. He manages to find a reasonably priced place to live and lands a well-paid job tutoring high school kids. After meeting an exceptionally kind woman by the name of Sam (Christine Ko) at a local bar, the two call a ride-share service to pick them up. The driver, Roger (Michael Lee Joplin), is peculiarly talkative and can’t help but pry into their business. Thinking nothing of it, Andy spends the following days hanging out with Sam and establishing new clients for his tutoring services. One day, while Andy is walking his dog, Roger “coincidentally” bumps into him and charms his way into having a beer together. After a few encounters with Roger, Andy finally comes to the conclusion that Roger is a bit off and way too demanding of his time. Just as he starts to ignore Roger and come up with excuses why he can’t see him, strange and distressing things start to plague Andy’s life. Roger’s suspected retaliatory harassment becomes a certainty and Andy must find a way to escape the tightening clutch Roger has on his life.
The core themes and concept of Blinders have been explored many times before. Films like Nightcrawler (2014), The Cable Guy (1996), and most recently The Fanatic (2019) all share a central character that is obsessive and possessive of another character. This film isn’t particularly original, but it works more often than not, because its execution is laser focused. There’s never a scene that feels like it could have been removed because the story never meanders. The pacing flows in an organic, steady stream and I was certainly never bored. While the cast is small, every character gets an even amount of screen time, enabling us to get to know these people in an intimate way. That might make the film sound talky and slow, but it’s quite the opposite. Rather, it moves along at a brisk pace, frequently uncovering Roger’s deviously constructed mischiefs. Savage clearly understands the importance of pacing and knows just when to reveal information.
A film like this needs convincing and emotive actors, or it just won’t work. Fortunately, Blinders is ripe with talent. It’s hard to articulate just how incredible Michael Lee Joplin is in this film. I’m not one to physically react to a film’s intended effect, but more than once I found myself cupping my hand over my mouth in shock of Roger’s antics; not dissimilar to what a mother might do when her child says a foul word. Joplin’s intense stares and volatile outbursts are terrifying, because you really don’t know what he might do next. In every scene, he is completely possessed by this character. Based on what you learn about him, Roger seems to know no bounds and his obsessions only further his delusional realties. Joplin’s performance is accolade worthy and I truly hope he receives wide recognition for his work.
Vincent Van Horn plays a very sympathetic and relatable character, but his reactions to the early warning signs of Roger are a tad unrealistic. Several times in the film, I put myself in his shoes and defiantly claimed I wouldn’t indulge this guy in the slightest. Roger gives off creepy vibes right away and I found it odd that, while Andy showed signs of slight unease, he went along with situations that most people would run from. One could argue this is just part of his good-natured, easy going character, or he has his “blinders” on as the title suggests. To look at it a bit deeper, Andy’s reluctance to initially distance himself from Roger could be because of the guilt he feels for a past wrongdoing we’re told about. I suppose I wish this was fleshed out a bit more. It’s a small complaint and Horn does a great job injecting likability into Andy, without ever feeling hokey or scripted. He comes across as someone you might be friends with or even family. Normal and insignificant as he may be, Andy is still an interesting character because of what we learn of his past. It can be very difficult to make an “everyman” kind of character someone you care about or relate to, and I applaud his performance for succeeding, as well as the tight script by Tyler Savage and Dash Hawkins.
While I’ve praised the film for its focus, pacing, and authentic feeling characters, there is a jarring transition in the third act. Up until this point, the reveals are very effective and believable, but the final twist is just a bit too far-fetched and betrays the realistic tone that came before it. A lot of thrillers pull this move and I think it may be because they feel the need to top everything with a climactic crescendo of shock. Having a good climax in a thriller is definitely necessary, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the kind of world that’s already been established. I still felt scared for the characters, but I couldn’t help but see the climax as contrived and silly. I don’t think it ruins the film by any means, but it does cheapen it in a way and takes away that raw sense of authenticity that it previously did so well.
Blinders is one of the better thrillers I’ve seen in recent years. It’s a simple and derivative plot, but it rises above several of its peers, because of its legitimate tension and believability. The film falters a bit at the end, with a plot twist that’s too grandiose for its original tone, but make no mistake, this is still a nail bitingly good thriller with exceptional performances. It’s also educational, as I’ll never take an Uber without checking driver reviews again.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth