By KEVIN HOOVER
Starring Larry Fessenden, Eric Tabach, and Zachary Booth
Written and directed by Christian Nilsson
Distributed by Gravitas Ventures and Kamikaze Dogfight
Over the coming decades, film historians will undoubtedly pen essays about the “pandemic era” of filmmaking. Movies didn’t cease to exist, but their directors had to roll with the punches and drastically change their techniques in order to continue to ply their craft. Christian Nilsson is one of those adept creatives. When theaters were inaccessible during much of 2020, Nilsson took his short film Unsubscribe – a thriller shot entirely in the context of a video conference call – and rented out a movie theater while the cast and crew purchased all the seats. The film, reportedly produced on absolutely no budget whatsoever, was able to rightfully declare itself the top-grosser of June 2020. His follow-up and feature length debut, DASHCAM (not to be confused with Rob Savage’s Dashcam, also releasing this year) carries forward some of the design aesthetics of its predecessor and delivers an intriguing thriller.
On Halloween night, Jake (Eric Tabach) slogs away in his tiny apartment as a video editor for the local news. His overbearing boss Tim (Zachary Booth) is hours away from breaking a major story involving a routine traffic stop-turned-deadly where former Attorney General Lieberman (Larry Fessenden) and a police officer opened fire on one another. To placate the general public, video of the incident captured from the officer’s dashcam is sent over for use in the news footage. Inadvertently, the FBI also happens to send Jake additional files not intended for his eyes or ears, most damning of which are audio clips removed from the original crime scene video. Of course, by the time an ominous voice calls and warns him not to go prying, he already has. What follows is a well-crafted slow burn that unfolds nearly entirely in Jake’s living quarters amidst the glow of his computer screen.
Nilsson’s meta-approach to DASHCAM is an obvious necessity due to social distancing guidelines. Showing that he has a grasp of the thriller genre – the director cites De Palma’s Blow Out and Coppola’s The Conversation as influences – he makes the most of a less than ideal situation and constructs an interesting take on the conspiracy theory thriller. Tabach’s Jake is executed flawlessly, introducing viewers to a character whose antisocial behaviors and anxiety shed light on someone who revels in working in seclusion. Nearly all of the film’s interactions happen on a computer screen, and to show that Jake does maintain some semblance of personal relationships, his girlfriend Mara (Giorgia Whigham) occasionally pops in for a few video calls, as do a couple of friends hosting a virtual Halloween party. Considering the topicality of these moments, these glimpses help to establish a bond with viewers; you can feel for Jake because he’s going through the exact same things we’ve been going through, even if his reasoning is different from ours.
While DASHCAM does work well within a mostly single-environ setting, Jake’s editing work serves as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s necessary to keep driving the story to its close, as he discovers different perspectives on footage and audio clips that piece together what slowly reveals itself to be a government coverup. On the other, the actual process of watching him go over the same video footage again…and again…and again … edges dangerously close to redundancy and asks a lot of viewers who want to stick around to the end. As things fall into place, viewers can cull some satisfaction from Jake’s “aha!” moments as a reward for their patience, but oftentimes it’s a grind to earn it. And it’s just criminal that Larry Fessenden’s role is limited to just a few clips played over and over again, alongside much more lengthy segments of dialogue. It fits the script and it’s always nice to see him lending his talents to an upstart director, but in casting such a recognized name, it’s unfulfilling that his presence isn’t more substantial. Throughout the film, Jake is constantly hounded by his boss to finish up his work on the video while internally struggling with whether he should heed the advice of the FBI to ignore the facts or use the information to catapult his own journalism career. He ultimately chooses the self-serving route, and it carries him toward a suspenseful conclusion that ties up the story while also giving sleuthing types something to mull over for a few days afterward.
Christian Nilsson’s DASHCAM is a clever film that uses real-world events to mold its fictional stage. Even though it’s primarily a one actor affair, Eric Tabach’s portrayal of anxiety-laden Jake is mesmerizing enough for viewers to get vested in, even if the tedium of watching him edit his way through a political assassination can sometimes be grating. Fessenden is a welcome, though under-utilized addition, and the supporting cast members serve as necessary forces that push and pull the lead character in ways that continuously ratchet up the feeling of dread. While it’s yet to be determined exactly what films best represent those works produced amid the pandemic, DASHCAM should definitely be one of the frontrunners.
DASHCAM is currently available for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime.