War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, except interesting, violent character studies that take an intricate look at the human condition and the pain caused by hatred and vengeance, as we see on full display in the upcoming film, White Chamber…
…A sci-fi drama with some bite, White Chamber is written/directed by Paul Raschid (Servant’s Quarters), and tells a near-future story taking place in the UK during a civil war. Eleanor (Shauna Macdonald), wakes up to find herself in a horribly bright cell reminiscent of Cube, where she is to be tortured by an unseen captor unless she truthfully answers questions regarding her part in the war. We soon learn though that not only is Eleanor a liar, but she isn’t exactly as innocent in all of this as we might think.
I have to get a pesky SPOILER out of the way for this review to make sense, but it only spoils a minor part of the first act, so bear with me. When we first meet Eleanor in this luminescent cell, she refers to herself as Ruth and claims she is only an assistant and knows nothing about what went on in the facility. But we soon discover that Eleanor is actually the one who was running things, and has stolen the identity of Ruth (Amrita Acharia), in order to protect herself. Why does all of that matter? Because White Chamber pulls a clever 180, taking the audience back five days to show us that Eleanor has been taken captive by the very man she was torturing, the leader of the resistance, General Zakarian (Oded Fehr). There, now that that’s cleared up…
Playing a conniving liar driven by anger and violence isn’t easy, but Macdonald does an incredible job in selling her character. In being a puppet of the “system”, we at first view Eleanor as weak and afraid, yet her captor, Zakarian, knows that isn’t the case. During one of many torturous moments, he even states “your resolve is admirable…but the purpose of this chamber is to break that resolve, isn’t it?” This after Eleanor jogs in place with as much energy as she can after Zakarian activates a temp change, bringing the box to at least thirty below zero. Macdonald brings an intensity to Eleanor that is, as Zakarian says, often admirable, but also dangerous. We as the viewer eventually begin to feel as if Eleanor doesn’t just have a strong will to survive, but that there is something monstrous inside her which is keeping her going, something which Macdonald often expresses through a simple, animalistic look, head low like a predator.
By flipping your average “torture” synopsis on its head and showing us what has led to Eleanor being in the box rather than Zakarian, Raschid is playing with the idea of who is the real villain here, Zakarian, or Eleanor? Is Eleanor a monster for the detached way in which she tortures Zakarian, or does she have a good reason? These are the sorts of questions Raschid toys with throughout, making White Chamber an interesting character study more than anything else, which is also the film’s greatest strength. I found myself fascinated by Eleanor and wanted to know more about her.
However, by flipping the narrative and taking us in a different direction, White Chamber shows its cards too early, and loses what could have otherwise been an intense little sci-fi horror drama. See, White Chamber has so many twists it could be a corkscrew, yet most of those twists are revealed in the first thirty minutes or so. Once Raschid takes Eleanor out of the box and follows her as the antagonist torturing Zakarian, White Chamber takes on a much different tone, going from sci-fi thriller to sci-fi drama. Zakarian and the deadly chamber become side pieces, while Ruth and her disagreements over Eleanor’s actions become the meat of the story. This decision drastically slows down the pacing and intensity of the film, so much so that we even begin to forget Eleanor’s current predicament, which the film doesn’t come back to until the last ten minutes. We already know how Eleanor ended up in the cell and who ended up taking her captive, so there really isn’t much suspense between the opening and the finale.
It’s maddening that White Chamber does this, because the film starts off with an explosive bang, and then treats us to an hour of simmering smoke. That’s because the box and the initial mystery behind Eleanor’s imprisonment are fascinating. The film starts off like Saw meets Cube, introducing the audience to a malevolent voice which mocks Eleanor’s pain as she’s tortured. This box is less “booby-trap” than Cube, but just as deadly, able to adjust to extreme temperatures, blare sirens that will make your ears bleed, and even rain acid, because why not. The first thirty minutes of White Chamber are so intense you want to scream with Eleanor.
There’s also an added element of an experimental powder being tested on captives, one which seems to turn victims into flesh-craving, ravenous monsters not far from living zombies. This leads to some surprisingly grotesque moments which show that Raschid isn’t fucking around when it comes to the violence. Hell, Zakarian even drops a severed hand into Eleanor’s cell early on to prove the danger she’s in, again setting up for what could have been a tense, claustrophobic, dare I say better film had White Chamber stuck with that narrative and chosen to occasionally flashback to the days leading up to this, rather than making that the entire film.
In a lot of ways, White Chamber is a film held captive by the box it creates around itself. It is well made, shot with an effectively dreary color scheme of blues and grays, and is an interesting commentary on human beings and the disconnect we feel from each other when we view someone as only being on a screen. But where White Chamber succeeds, it also undercuts itself by ultimately becoming an unevenly paced movie which is not nearly as attention grabbing as it at first seems.
White Chamber releases on VOD from Dark Sky Films on March 29th.
By Matt Konopka