The Den (2013) Movie Review

This is one of the challenges and problems that face Zachary Donohue’s The Den, a film that tries like hell to draw dread and fear from the pitfalls of the wild, open internet but ultimately becomes too complicated from a logistical standpoint to maintain the taught, freakyness of its setup. The title, ‘The Den’ refers to an online social networking site, of sorts, that connects folks at random all over the world. The rapid-fire changeroo nature of the site is played for laughs and for amusement early on (Chat Roulette-eque) and even includes a jump-scare prank for good measure. Our central character, Liz (Melanie Papalia), is working on applying for a grant to study humanity in this new world for her graduate thesis and hopes (it seems anyway) to pull deeper meaning from what appears to be a superficial environment. So far so good.

When Liz incidentally discovers a feed of what appears to be a young girl bound, attacked and murdered, she understandably freaks out and tries to seek help. Her absentee boyfriend, her lap dog ‘friend’ guy, the best friend, even the police don’t really give the video much heed. She, however, is non-deterred and her insistence on trying to dig deeper seems to open up a Pandora’s box, so to speak, from which all manner of badness will invade her life. If it were only that simple, if it were only that clear-cut, the film would be a tightly wound thriller short on absurd detail but long on tension.

Instead, once she becomes a target rather than a casual observer, things get ridiculous. The level to which the unseen force or forces invade her life technologically make the ‘players’ in David Fincher’s The Game look like they are playing an afternoon game of Clue. There are hidden cameras, there are mapping programs that somehow integrate with steady-cams on a person, there are remote ways of turning on and controlling a computer and so on and so on. The middle stretch of the film is a balancing act between honest-to-goodness tension and fear and suspension of disbelief for the aforementioned list of technological advancements. It is absolutely maddening. You have real fear, real dread having to compete for space with remarkable leaps of logic and suspension of disbelief.

Things get very real and very deadly for Liz and those around her and ramp up in a pretty suspenseful way as the film plunges into the final act. But again, you must set aside your questions about the lengths the evil ones are going to and how the hell they are pulling it all off to keep hooked into the suspense of it. Less questioning, more just going with it is the only real way to stay on the trajectory the film wants you on as things come to a head. Time and time again you are reminded or distracted by the thought that the film would be so much better and so much more effective if it were simpler.

And then, well we get the pan out. The widening of the lens to reveal the man behind the curtain as it were. What it means and what it all is and what we’ve spent the better part of an hour and change on becomes a very different thing. And for my money, it isn’t a good decision. It is a creepy and unsettling decision (by itself) and had it been a short film with that payoff a whole lot closer to the start of the film just in terms of length, it might work like gangbusters. But with really no hint as to the larger framing, no reveals in and around the majority of the film, it just feels tacked on. Unnecessary. It is as if the film and the story being told couldn’t just exist on its own and needed some larger 11th hour pull back of the mask thing to make it hit home. For me? It had the opposite effect. What I felt for Liz and the ordeal she had gone through was marginalized and fragmented into an essentially meaningless exercise in meanness and mental torture for no reason.

Now, that in and of itself is a good idea and can hold weight but as the sweater on a thick-coated dog, it just isn’t needed. If you want to make the movie about the danger of anonymity on the internet and the seeming randomness of cruelty in humanity, make your movie about that. Don’t tell one story and then shove another one on top of it as a half-formed afterthought. It is galling because, at times, The Den has some seriously unnerving moments and a sad, hopelessness that works in its favor.

But between the constant logic-stretching the technological and logistical framework inspires and the bloated, unsupported ending, it ends up being a unsatifying experience when it is all said and done. Which is a shame because the larger idea is there, the dread is there but the confidence to be simplistic and the even-handed approach certainly are not.

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