I might as well get this pesky reference out of the way and compare Anthony Spadaccini’s film Unstable to The Blair Witch Project, though the two films share nothing in terms of plot. Rather they are similar because both were shot to look and feel like a document of real events. Whereas Blair ventured into the realm of horror, Unstable examines a current political issue: hate crimes. A tricky subject, to be sure, and for about 60% of time it is dealt with in an objective, evenhanded way. Unfortunately the film is mortally wounded when it morphs into something far heavier handed.
The opening credits worried me a bit, as they appeared over a POV shot of someone moving through a forest. Altered during post-production, the shot had been slowed and glossed over with a Western-style sepia tone. Add a haunting New Age song created just for the movie’s soundtrack and you can imagine my apprehension. Unstable was screaming “art house film,” the kind where dogs are shown upside down and naked Swedes discuss the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Luckily the style was soon ditched in favor of what is truly a clever premise. Every actor in the film plays a version of themselves, and in this sort of pseudo-reality Spadaccini has won an award for his movie, Unstable. To celebrate his achievement, Anthony’s friends arrange to go camping for the weekend. Conflict arises when James, Anthony’s friend of over ten years, begins to loudly voice his disgust with another camper, a gay teenager named Bobby. James’ homophobia is all-too apparent, but Anthony tries to maintain peace so as to keep his weekend intact.
Bobby, sick of being tormented, eventually seeks privacy in the campsite’s surrounding woods. Without warning James also vanishes for a time, though when he returns he is reluctant to explain his absence. Then the bombshell: Bobby’s dead body is discovered while some of the campers are out looking for him. While the consensus points James out as the killer, Anthony’s loyalty makes it hard for him to rigidly accuse his friend of such a horrible crime. Thus the supposedly complex moral debate is brought forth.
The best part about this film is the acting, which I assume was completely improved around an initial outline. No one seems put off when the camera comes their way, as we see them goofing off, cursing like sailors, and being completely natural. The only forced, somewhat stilted moments come when the actors are obviously trying to further their own plot, especially after Bobby’s corpse is found. People stop being natural and start expounding on the ins and outs of the sticky moral situation before them, and suddenly the film seems conventional.
With this home video filming technique comes an inherent problem: Though well performed, none of the characters see development, especially the main trio of Anthony, James, and Bobby. Time and time again we see the homophobe and his target go at each other’s throats, and after a while it becomes monotonous. I longed for more footage which would show us just who these two were outside of their battles. Bobby’s death ultimately has no weight because he is nothing more than a hazy, thinly drawn image caught on camera. We do get a sense of the nicer side of James, but further exploration of his character would have made his guilt a more complex issue. The movie clocks in at just over 70 minutes, so I don’t think this is too much to ask for.
None of this really matters in light of how Spadaccini slowly but surely manhandles his own film, throwing in one cliché after another in a hopeless attempt to make the film resonate. The sepia tone/New Age music combo is used far too often, to the point where Spadaccini is almost insulting his audience’s intelligence. Any viewer will understand the tension between James and Bobby from the first time they interact, so the extreme close-ups and film style tricks do nothing more than waste time.
Matters only get worse during the film’s climax, when James inexplicably shoots himself in the head. Why? I can’t give a reasonable explanation. It’s certainly not shocking, since it’s almost impossible to justify suicide without it coming off as sensationalism. Finally, as if the movie couldn’t get more self-important, the last moments of the movie are spent displaying text cards. One defines the term “hate crime,” another actually explains the movie’s intent, and so on. Hell, why not have Kirk Cameron come out and ask if we know who’s a homophobe and make it a full-on After School Special?
I will defend Unstable for its fantastic acting, as I admire everyone involved. And while I do think the issue of hate crimes deserves its own film, as a whole this is certainly not a worthwhile effort. Instead of trusting his own material, Spadaccini tinkered with his creation and ended up doing more harm than good, and it’s sad to see his material go to waste for the error.