OPEN WINDOWS is a slick thriller that perfectly captures our paranoia in an age of information overload. In the classic Hitchcock suspense drama Rear Window, James Stewart witnesses a crime in a neighboring apartment. Nacho Vigalondo’s homage puts Elijah Wood in the bystander role but draws him into the felony itself, framing him as a peeping tom and then an assailant in an assault. On the run, Wood (as celebrity stalker Nick Chambers) must figure out who is doing this to him as well as protect the initial target of his stalking, Sasha Grey (who plays frustrated b-movie star Jill Goddard). For much of the film, the audience races along on the joyride with these characters, with only the windows open on a laptop to guide them from scene to scene.
Let me back up here. What makes OPEN WINDOWS such a gripping thriller is the presentation style. The film opens with Chambers in his hotel room, preparing for a dream dinner date/interview with his favorite celebrity and the focus of his website, JillGoddard-Caught.com, where he posts titillating but PG pictures of the star. After he films a video introduction as part of the contest he won, he receives a mysterious call through his laptop informing him that Goddard has cancelled the contest and he’s come to Austin for no reason. This ‘insider,’ who calls himself Chord, appears to take Chambers side and, as an apology, offers him exclusive access to a network of cameras in the theatre where Goddard is doing a live press conference. He also can hack into her phone, using the camera, and her computer, oh, and all the cameras in her house. Chambers watches her fight with her boyfriend, and her agent, who seems to be her secret boyfriend, and confess she wants out of the business. It’s when the agent catches Chambers spying that things get complicated, as the mostly-innocent blogger must rely on Chord’s instructions to escape the hotel. As Chambers gets more and more drawn into to Chord’s plan it becomes clear that it is Chord who is in charge, who has had this planned for a long time, and who seems bent on taking revenge of the starlet.
I saw OPEN WINDOWS first at SXSW and then again at Fantastic Fest, which itself makes a nice cameo in the film as the location of the press conference for the new Goddard pick ‘Dark Sky.’ I had a chance to speak with director Vigalondo both about the film, and his excellent collection of shorts (Confetti of the Mind) that also played Fantastic Fest and is available for download from Drafthouse Films. In that conversation and in the Q&As for the film, the director was quick to acknowledge the Hitchcock influence in the film. He said we was not one to normally wear his influences on his sleeve, but in this case, it was an easy leaping off point for something fresh he wanted to do. “The producers came to me asking for a movie where social media and the Internet would be really important,” he says, “you remember Closer by Mike Nichols? And sometimes you see people write on messenger? And now the youngest people don’t know what messenger is.” The idea for OPEN WINDOWS came from a desire to tell a whole movie through the portal of a computer screen. “I wrote the script in 2008 and since technology is faster than movie-making,” he admits, he knew anything he wrote “would be dated by the time of the movie’s premiere.” Vigalondo decided to ignore Facebook and Twitter and all the social media sites that were ‘trending’ at any one particular time, and focus on the internet in general, where, as he says, “anything is possible.”
His biggest inspiration came not from Hitchcock but from the films of Brian De Palma, specifically 1981’s Blow Out, in which John Travolta stars as a sound effects technician who accidentally records audio of a presidential nominee assassination. This film itself was based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up, about a photographer who basically does the same using the medium of film. However, in OPEN WINDOWS, the lead character finds himself in as much danger as the original target. Wood is the perfect vessel for the caper – his ‘aw shucks’ demeanor and his instant distrust of someone trying to defame ‘his’ star gives him instant likeability. Even though he spends a majority of the film trying to figure out what is going on, he does try to hijack Chord’s plan every opportunity he gets. When a mysterious group of hackers, called ‘triops,’ find their way into Chamber’s computer as well, thinking he is ‘Nevada,’ a sort of hero to cyber-vigilantes, Chambers has no problem utilizing them to protect Goddard.
Both Wood and Grey deserve praise for essentially being in a two-hander without ever having any scenes together. Wood said the process was a bit like voice-over. “A great deal of this film was conceived by its actual shooting,” he explains, “Nacho had to basically make the movie in an animatic form before we went to shoot it, so when we started shooting it, it was all just each individual actor looking at the web cam.” Grey adds “one of the strangest days had to be in the trunk of the car, when all the cameras spill out of the bag, and I was in a plexi-box, like a miniature coffin, we just had to repeat and repeat with different takes because there were sixteen cameras.” The film does a fantastic job of placing the actors, and the various locations, including a spectacular car chase through the city of Austin all together on screen, and on the screen of Chamber’s laptop where the film plays out. Vigalondo credits the actors, including Neil Maskell (Chord) for trusting him on the difficult project: “I’m fully aware that when it was still nothing but a screenplay, the film was a complete mystery. With that in mind I couldn’t be more grateful to Elijah, Sasha and Neil for agreeing to incarnate the ‘triangular protagonist’. Beyond any formal craziness, beyond the multiplicity of windows, the real time aspect and the multiple plot twists, it was absolutely necessary that the three actors – and wonderful people they are – give themselves over to create something that from a distance would be fully recognizable (hero, victim, masked menace), but when looked at more closely, would reveal itself as something new – even subversive. They are three uniquely individual stars, and I couldn’t be prouder that their extraordinary qualities have fulfilled the personality of this adventure.”
OPEN WINDOWS is a blast of a film. It’s a never ending stream of excitement that pulls you from one clickable source to the next and just when you get your bearings, a new window pops open. I’ve really enjoyed watching Grey develop as an actress and after playing a sort of tongue-in-cheek version of herself in Entourage and an idealized version (as required) in The Girlfriend Experience, OPEN WINDOWS gives her the opportunity to just relax… and scream. She can give Jamie Lee Curtis a run for her money as a scream queen. In fact, my only qualm with the film is that it ends. I’ve just been on a harrowing 100-minute journey with these characters with no chance to catch my breath and then when it concludes, I am desperate to know more about their world. I guess that’s something that makes a film about the Internet better than the actual Internet – it has logical conclusion. The film is a fascinating exploitation of everything you can possibly do and yet still tie it all back to one computer screen. It’s a little like Wood’s last thriller, Grand Piano, where someone is pulling his strings, but with a much wider world.
I love films like OPEN WINDOWS. Vigalondo presents a fresh and all-encompassing world, throws us into it, lets us struggle to catch up, and then pulls the carpet out from under us (oh, did I mention there are about five whiplash twists at the end of the film?)
In a move that seems perfect for this particular film, OPEN WINDOWS arrives on VOD October 2nd, and will make its theatrical debut in select markets on November 7th.