“Blank”, the feature film directorial debut from Natalie Kennedy, is a smart indie thriller that delves deeper than expected.
How much of creative writing is talent (natural or otherwise) and cool ideas, and how much of it is just old-fashioned hard work? It’s a question I ponder quite often, though I have yet to come up with a valid answer. I suppose, like most things, it really depends on the writer’s state of mind.
All of the great ideas in the world mean nothing if they are never properly written down and explored. Conversely, putting in the hours and mastering the rules of written language does not necessarily equate to being able to craft an enjoyable read.
While reviews themselves rarely pose a challenge (the topic is already set, all I have to do is add some flourishes to my opinions), in my personal creative writing, the battle between the two tends to rear its ugly head quite frequently. Talent or effort? Skill or perseverance?
And though “Blank” may not be asking those same questions directly, they do float around in the background. In spirit and in subtext.
This little “indie film that could” is honestly the only movie I can think of to genuinely broach some of the lesser-seen aspects of writing.
Even if it does so in a roundabout fashion.
The mere fact that I was pondering work vs. talent after watching the movie tells me that Blank is more than just entertainment. The film actually has something to say.
Work vs. talent aside, Blank is actually much more of a rumination on the nature of writer’s block. On the ways in which it can figuratively trap a writer (and literally as well, in the case of this particular film). In fact, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how effectively Blank manages to capture the frustration of said topic. Maybe it’s because it hits very close to home.
The film itself feels like a feature-length episode of Black Mirror. As that is one of my favorite streaming shows of all time, the comparison is high praise indeed.
Much like most of the BM episodes, Blank is partly a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology. In this case, a smart home where every function is controlled and monitored by a dedicated artificial intelligence.
The plot synopsis reads as follows: A desperate writer signs up for a fully A.I. operated retreat to cure her writer’s block, but when an unforeseen software glitch occurs, she gets trapped inside her unit with an unstable android and no communication with the outside world.
And yes, on the surface that is exactly the film we get.
But director Natalie Kennedy, working from a script by Stephen Herman, imbues Blank with several undercurrents.
Writer’s block is one. The question of forced creativity is another. Can an artist, if pressed and pressured, forcibly create something worth creating? Or must they be allowed freedom? Without the constraints of a deadline?
Blank also throws one or two curveballs into the mix.
Most notably of which is the frequent asides that take place while the main character Claire is working on her story; asides that include a young woman living with a dangerously unstable mother.
Are they flashbacks? Visualizations in Claire’s head as she creates? Something else entirely? In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will keep disclosures to a minimum. Suffice to say that what is taking place may not entirely be what viewers expect. And while none of the revelations that take place in Blank are particularly surprising, they do fit well within the confines of the narrative.
Actress Rachel Shelley brings a mixture of vulnerability and aggression to the role of Claire, the film’s protagonist, and our proxy into the events that take place.
Given the fact that she is in nearly every single scene, Claire has to be someone that the audience can root for. Ms. Shelley manages to give Claire a somewhat cold and introverted vibe, but never to the point where she’s callous or haughty. It had to be a difficult tightrope to walk, but the actress proves more than up for the task.
Outside of all that, however, Claire does come across as slightly lost or befuddled. As if she’s in over her head. It was a performance that didn’t sit well with me at first. But once certain story beats were uncovered, the choices for her character’s behavior became obvious. And from that point on I was sold.
The android Rita is played capably by actress Heida Reed.
I always have a quiet sort of respect when a performer is required to limit their emotional output in order to play a robotic character. Some manage it. Others don’t. But Ms. Reed absolutely nails the little mannerisms and odd motions that a synthetic person would possess. Especially the artificial grace in which she goes about her daily routines.
But beneath her picture-perfect smile and perfectly poised posture lies an unknowable agenda, as dictated by malicious code. Heida Reed also manages to make Rita physically imposing, though she looks slender and harmless. Beauty AND the beast rolled up into one package.
And when the two actresses interact with each other, the film really hits its stride.
A tit-for-tat between the emotional and the emotionless. My only wish is that the movie had explored their interactions a bit further.
Outside of the flashbacks/asides, the only other character with any sort of significant screen time is Wayne Brady’s Henry, the unit’s A.I. that governs daily functions. Known primarily for his ad-lib comedy, Brady is the perfect choice to play a holographic artificial intelligence. Between his moderated voice, professionally handsome appearance, and emotionally expressive face, Henry manages to be a well-realized character, despite being simply a digital projection.
Kudos to Mr. Brady for bringing subtle nuance to a role that could very well have been one-note.
Aside from a slow-burn intro and a few asides to the story that Claire is writing, the entirety of Blank takes place within the single-level unit that serves as the location for the retreat. It’s an austere environment, like something out of an Ikea catalog. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
But despite taking place in only a few rooms of that single environment, Blank never feels cramped or boring. The house itself almost serves as another character; initially inviting and cozy, but quickly becoming sinister and oppressive over the film’s runtime.
The fact that the film remains compelling from beginning to end, despite taking place in a single house and featuring only a handful of characters, is a testament to the skill of both the cast and the crew.
Where the movie truly triumphs is in how it tackles writer’s block.
There are multiple scenes of Claire sitting in front of her typewriter, eager to begin. And then that eagerness starts to morph into something else. We find her staring at her typewriter, determination evident in her expression. And then determination becomes desperation.
She paces back and forth. She smokes. She crumples up blank pieces of paper and throws them to the floor. Silently willing her inspiration to manifest, while judging herself for failing to create.
Claire’s self-reproach in those moments is almost palpable.
For those who haven’t experienced it, writer’s block can be significantly harmful to someone attempting to bring a written creation to life. It can cripple self-esteem, causing a writer to question whether their idea is even worth exploring. There’s something uniquely terrifying about staring at that great swath of white on a page, unadorned and empty. It can even have a sort of paralyzing effect, where there is so much emptiness that a writer doubts their own ability to fill it.
This then becomes its own mental trap. And Blank plays on that theme beautifully, as not only is Claire trapped within the unit itself, she is also trapped in her own mind as she tries to force a story into being.
It’s that captivating duality that raises Blank up from being just another humdrum “house haunted by technology” tale.
But, of course, if there’s going to be a haunted house (of any variety), there also has to be a reason for the character to be there. Thankfully, Blank has that covered.
The idea of a writer’s retreat is actually a novel one. The perfect explanation for why Claire would be in a strange place on her own. And if the writer needs to have minimal contact with the world in order to complete their work, then an automated house makes sense.
But a few questions also arise. Why is Claire constantly ignoring calls from her publishing agent? If she’s an accomplished writer, then why is she having such a hard time coming up with an idea?
Well, there are pretty good reasons actually. And once the film provides those reasons, in a very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fashion, some of the film’s earlier conceits also make a lot more sense.
On the technical front, there is little to report. The film is competently shot, and the accompanying score is never overbearing. In fact, the entire production goes for the minimalist approach, where silence and color often stand in for conversations and drama. I believe this was done intentionally to heighten the feeling of unease and claustrophobia.
There is some advanced technology in use, but it’s handled in an unobtrusive and abstract manner, so the CGI effects do not look glaringly fake.
It must be stated that BLANK is not a horror movie in the traditional sense. There really aren’t any jump scares; no masked killer; no ominous soundtrack to herald the arrival of some sinister force. And really no blood or gore either. It’s more akin to a psychological thriller, where the scares are cerebral “what ifs” instead of physical threats.
But don’t let that dissuade you. It’s a unique offering that is definitely worth a watch.