In Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel Swing Time, the main character offers a backhanded compliment of certain b-tier Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films, asserting that “the story was the price you pay for the rhythms.” Perhaps at my grumpiest I would’ve taken umbrage with that statement, but I think it’s an assessment that can be applied to Levan Gabriadze’s 2014 film Unfriended and its new sequel, Stephen Susco’s Unfriended: Dark Web. The two films are above all examinations in form, removed from their experimental trappings and provided global distribution. As such, Dark Web remains indebted to certain banal, universal truths in service of its genre, but communicates its ideas in novel, perpetually intriguing ways. What certain Astaire and Rogers’ films may have lacked in narrative sophistication they made up for with the finesse and rhythms of their physical performances. The “performance”, as it were, at the center of Dark Web is one of ocular empathy, where, contained on a desktop, the movement of every mouse click, collapse and minimization of a window, and the flickering of a cursor is given tactile depth.
Mathias (Colin Woodell) steals a laptop from an internet café’s lost and found, in hopes of replacing his old computer for something that can smoothly run an app designed to better communicate with his deaf girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). He struggles to get the thing running though, as he quickly discovers that the laptop’s memory is full. After some digging, and with the help of his friends (all seen in conference through Skype as they intend on doing a webcam game night from all across the globe), Mathias discovers hidden videos on the computer. Sharing his screen with friends, the cadre briefly view a handful of videos, all snuff films of Women in Trouble. What make these sequences so effective is in our perspective, where we observe the reaction shots of Mathias and his friends watching these videos. While the glimpses we get from these snuff films are horrific, it’s these fragmented reaction shots that impose vitality.
Dark Web eventually devolves into a series of obfuscated twists, where the owner of Mathias’ laptop attempts to get it back, threatening to capture Amaya. More hidden figures, including a cabal of wealthy hackers get involved, as Mathias and his friends are snuffed out in grotesque order. As clumsy as Susco’s narrative becomes, it’s his formalism that never gets caught up or shaken. This film’s rhythms exudes tension, touching upon some genuine fears about communication, our capacity to protect those we love from faceless figures, and imparting lessons on boundless curiosity. Susco’s superfluous gestures may lack finesse, but at Dark Web’s core we have an essential, timely and timeless narrative, told in a radical way. It may not always be good, but it’s certainly good enough.