To many of us, it seems we live in a world of increasingly senseless and random acts of violence; a jumbled parade of assaults, muggings, murders, and terrorist atrocities caught on film and unleashed upon the internet masses, leaving those that watch alternately angry, confused, heartbroken, and hoarse from the calls for justice...
...Each new video that pops up prompts head-shaking and hand-wringing over who could do such a thing, certainly, but inevitably the collective attention pivots towards a more disturbing, and perhaps more complicated, question: who could stand by and watch this happen? Don’t Look Back hinges on this very unnerving query, and the vast array of possible answers, calling into question the notion of bystander effect and forcing the viewer to ask themselves the haunting question of “well, what would I do? And what does that say about me?”
The film, written and directed by Jeffrey Reddick, creator of Final Destination, centers on Caitlin Kramer (Kourtney Bell), a young woman in the midst of recovering from a near-fatal trauma who is taking small but powerful steps to reclaim her life. While on a jog in an otherwise innocuous park, Caitlin is one of several witnesses to a savage beating that leaves a man, Douglas Helton (Dean J. West), dead. None of the witnesses, including Caitlin, do anything to intervene on the attack or come to Helton’s aid. One man, Nathan (Stephen Twardokus), is quick to take out his phone, but only to film the assault. When Nathan’s video of Douglas’s murder goes viral, and his brother Lucas (Will Stout) shares the names of the witnesses with the public, Caitlin’s world starts to crumble. She and the other witnesses are hit with a torrent of vitriolic hate and self-righteous judgement from everyone from newscasters to passing strangers on the street. After Nathan dies under mysterious circumstances, Caitlin, once again present at the scene, begins to suspect that someone—or something—is getting revenge for Douglas’s death and the inaction of those who watched him die. Amidst the media frenzy, the suspicious eye of a local detective (Jeremy Holm), and her boyfriend’s (Skyler Hart) growing concern over her paranoia and supposed hallucinations, Caitlin must convince herself and those around her that the danger is not over, and in fact may be closer than anyone thinks…
Based on a short of the same name, Don’t Look Back is Reddick’s directorial debut after having amassed a number of writing credits in the genre, including Tamara (2005) and the Day of the Dead remake (2008). The direction is competent, standard, and digestible; there’s nothing too noticeable or flashy that stood out as Reddick leaving his mark as a director. The screenplay, however, is rich with Reddick’s distinct flair. All of the characters meet nasty and gruesome ends appropriate for the creator of the Final Destination franchise. They’re not quite as over-the-top as the elaborate, Rube Goldberg-esque demises of the Destination films, but the deaths in Don’t Look Back still feel deliciously mean.
Thematically, the film is asking us to mull over uncomfortable and layered questions about empathy, apathy, cowardice, self-preservation, trauma, and virtuosity. Reddick opens with a montage of real-life recorded attacks on individuals in which groups of people stand around filming or watching accompanied by newscaster commentary on the morality of the bystanders in question. In coding these actual incidents in such a way, the viewer is thus primed from frame one to anticipate a similarly violent act will occur in the film, during which no one will attempt to stop it, and that we are to view these inactive characters as shameful for their passivity. It’s a clear stance, one which many viewers will likely share, but it robs the film of a chance to introduce some ambiguity and really play with these concepts of remorse and humanity and whether or not our culture has become starved of empathy. Each of the characters does provide an explanation for their own inaction, but the film spends so little time with the other witnesses it’s impossible to get a read on their authenticity.
Perhaps that’s because Don’t Look Back is, at its heart, a classic slasher. The other witnesses, with the exception of Althea (Jacqueline Fleming), are body fodder; not so much fully fleshed out people as faces doomed to die in order to give Caitlin more impetus to unravel the mystery around her. There’s nothing wrong with that, inherently; and there certainly isn’t time to give every side character a fully fleshed out backstory, but it does leave the film feeling somewhat empty after posing such thoughtful and timely questions with the opening hook. A last-minute twist also adds an unnecessary lens that lessens what makes a random act of violence so terrifying: the randomness.
Happily, the film is well-made and hits all the right technical beats, with a sleek look and a fine cast that shines through some familiar story beats and occasionally rote dialogue. There are a few cool tricks surrounding the kills that cinematographer Andy Steinman clearly had fun with. The film would have been better served if that sense of fun and playfulness and willingness to really dig deep into the philosophy of the script had been further explored, but it stands as a decent slasher as is, and may prompt viewers to sit with uncomfortable questions surrounding culpability and what we owe to each other as fellow human beings. And anything that makes us remember our humanity is well worth a look these days.
Don’t Look Back comes to VOD from Gravitas Ventures October 16th.
By Craig Ranallo