Sympathy (2007) – By Cary Conley

A bank robber and his hostage hole up in a ratty hotel room only to be taken hostage themselves by an escaped convict. But as the night progresses and the trio continue to play a game of cat-and-mouse with each other, it becomes clear that all is not what it seems and that the threesome are not what each claims to be.

First-time director Andrew Moorman’s Sympathy draws its inspiration from gritty 70’s grindhouse and exploitation fare. All of the exploitive trappings are present: a seedy location; at least one psychopath; frenetic and hyperkinetic characterizations; and plenty of blood. Unfortunately, the whole doesn’t necessarily add up to the sum of those parts. Sympathy reminded me a bit of the classic exploitation film Fight for Your Life, another hostage film that takes place in one location. But unlike Fight for Your Life, Sympathy is a bit uneven and can wear on the viewer pretty quickly.

Screenwriter Arik Martin has crafted a decent script, but it is a bit talky. Being talky doesn’t have to be a negative in a film, but if the dialogue isn’t absolutely crisp and the delivery is less than perfect, then a talky film can become a chore to watch. While I wouldn’t characterize this film that negatively, it did tend to wear me down with its talkiness. Some of the dialogue was a bit hokey and some of the delivery–especially at the beginning of the film–wasn’t very good. For example, as the film opens, our bank robber opens the hotel door and slings his hostage onto the bed. I would imagine that a young woman who has just been kidnapped and handcuffed to a bed might be terror-struck with the implications of her predicament; however, the victim takes this opportunity to smart-off to the kidnapper in a very sarcastic manner, showing that she isn’t worried enough about her situation. She came across smarmy and inauthentic which caused me to immediately dislike her. When the viewer doesn’t sympathize with the "damsel in distress," the entire film is then jeopardized. Much of the dialogue is supposed to be cool and witty, but it actually comes across as mean-spirited and sarcastic, making all three characters unlikable, a fatal flaw in any film.

Another problem with the film is the several inconsistencies throughout the running time. For instance, a gun is shot several times during the film with no response from anyone else who may be staying or working at the hotel. Martin’s screenplay finally acknowledges this inconsistency and gives an explanation for it at the end of the film, but that is too late for the viewer who will have already recognized this problem and dismissed the plot as silly. And once we do finally get the explanation, it seems like a bit of a cheat, almost like the writer and director realized their mistake and tried to rectify it at the end of the film instead of fixing the problem at the beginning. Another sloppy mistake has Sara cut off one of her captor’s thumbs so he can slip out of his handcuffs. Problem is, when he pulls his bloody hand away, the handcuff is unlocked. At first I thought it was just a small continuity error, but the handcuff remains unlocked during the entire sequence, which begs the question "Why cut off his thumb if the thing was loose anyhow?" At one point, the escaped convict wants to order some food but the original kidnapper used the phone cord to tie the girl’s legs together. Incredibly, the convict puts himself at risk by leaving the hotel room in search of food instead of collecting the cord and plugging it back in! There are a couple of times towards the end of the film where I felt an escape attempt could have been successful, but was confused by the fact that none was made by the bank robber. Again, there is a good explanation for this at the very end, but by then it was too late as I had already dismissed the film for making what I thought were some pretty basic plot mistakes.

There are several nifty twists in the film and, generally speaking, I thought the plot was decent; the real problem is that even though all the inconsistencies in the film were resolved and explained away, it was done so late in the running time that it was hard to take the film seriously. I also thought the underlying reason for the whole event–which I won’t give away as to not spoil the film for any potential viewers–was a bit convoluted and unnecessary.

The acting is average at best, with Marina Shtelen as the handcuffed girl Sara being the best of the three. Shtelen didn’t start strong, but as the tale unfolds and we begin to see her darker, more manipulative side, she really begins to shine. The minimal musical score is also a high point of the film and is used to great effect. There was a decent amount of blood, although the scenes with potential for real gore (namely the thumb being cut off) occurred off screen, most likely due to financial constraints more than anything else.

Sympathy is a microbudget independent film. Shot in a barn (with a hotel room set inside) for $6500, one can’t help but be impressed with the overall quality of the film when you consider its tiny budget. I was impressed with the production values, musical score, and editing. But the very talky screenplay and average acting drags this film down a bit. I’ve seen much worse, but I’ve seen better, too. Overall, Sympathy is a mildly interesting thriller that managed to mostly keep my attention and probably deserves a viewing if you don’t have much else to do on a Saturday night.

Sympathy has been released by Vicious Circle Films, a division of Breaking Glass Pictures. It is widely available and can be ordered through Amazon or rented on Netflix. For more information, go to www.breakingglasspictures.com.