First off- the acting. Aaron Johnson’s central performance as William is good, but he plays the Jekyll and Hyde card a little too plainly, without delving far enough below the surface of the character’s sociopathy, whose origin is hinted at throughout, but never substantially enough to flesh the character out properly. The sorry effect is that it becomes obvious of his sadistic intentions way too early in proceedings, and everything else becomes secondary or even redundant. Johnson definitely offers flashes of skill, particularly at the start where he mocks bravado and confidence to attract web-based friends, and when he is downright evil (one noticable moment where he cocks his head rather inhumanely to watch something heinous on-screen sticks in the mind impressively). But it is a performance of nearly- he always seems two steps away from being utterly mesmorising (as he was in Nowhere Boy), and it becomes rather trying after a while, because you begin to feel frustrated for Johnson.
Opposite him in the other teen lead is An Education’s Matthew Beard, who impresses as troubled Jim, and who can probably walk away with his head held highest. Thankfully all of the film’s enjoyment for me, aside from its intriguing underlying ideas, was in the chemistry between Beard and Johnson, which was just enough to carry the necessary anxiety that made the film watchable. The intriguing dynamic between weak and domineering is excellently dealt with, even if the characters remain slightly lacking, and it is on that relationship’s back that any success will lie.
Finishing the top three (in terms of screen time at least) is Imogen Poots as snobbish but overly accomodating Eva, unbelievably striking, but rather an incidental character, whose only real role is the attempted foil of William’s malicious plan at the end. Indeed overall, it is ideas that form the real focus of the film, and not characters (other than the central two), and any performance would be stunted by such a condition.
Elsewhere, the Skins lot seem to really be making in-roads in their various filmic careers, with Nicholas Hoult bumping shoulders with Sam Reilly and Co on Clash of the Titans, joined of course by Skins little sister Kaya Scodelario (who has a number of other projects under her belt), and the excellent Jack O’Connell making roles in Eden Lake and Harry Brown his menacing own. With two more on show here in the shape of “Posh Kenneth” Daniel Kaluuya and “Cassie” Hannah Murray, the TV programme seems to have been a veritable hotbed of future film talent. Both put in reasonable performances, though they are definitely the most expendable of the five main characters, as their own stories are largely incidental to the central plot concern of William’s relationship with Jim.
In all honesty, Chatroom would have worked better, and probably would have been just as effective in the anxiety stakes as a two-man production featuring only William and Jim sat opposite one another talking through Jim’s condition, in a staged mock-up of their web-based conversations. Whether that would have captured an audience for 90 or so minutes is a different matter entirely, though, and the logistics dont match the sentiment. Where the film differs from the original play by Enda Walsh is in its fleshing out of the backgrounds of the main characters, and the anchoring of main characters to the narrative- rather than have foundations, and backstories for the people Jim encounters in the play, they are merely floating heads, helping him decide whether or not to commit suicide in online exchanges, which are addressed to the audience. The only other character really dealt with in any depth in the play is Laura, the sole voice of reason in Jim’s conversations about his depression, which would have robbed Nakata of the potential for any kind of narrative depth, and one presumes would have got extremely tedious over a feature-length running time.
Ironically, the narrative fleshing out, and inclusion of other characters, robs Aaron Johnson’s character William of the depth that would have made him a far better character, and stretches the film almost to the breaking point. It is very difficult to care even slightly about William’s family, or even Eva, Emily or Mo’s stories because of the way they are dealt with, and the film is robbed of an emotional or moral heart that would have anchored it and made it hugely more enjoyable.
Visually, Chatroom surprisingly owes a debt to modern J-Horror classics, with very familiar camera angles, and scenes shot through coloured filters adding an exotic slant to the otherwise authentically British-feeling cinematography. This is perhaps why a lot of the first reviews that went up were so negative, and struggled with the identity of the film- for anyone planning on seeing it in future, please do not go in expecting a Nakata classic, as Chatroom is a difficult creature to classify, and such a blinkered optimism will lead only to disappointment.
For me, Chatroom belongs to a very specific subgenre of the horror: the anxiety horror, which plays on inherent fears- whether the parental fear of loss of control caused by the internet, or wider disassociation with their children, or the anxiety attributed to not ever really knowing who you are dealing with online. The film channels a feeling that the wonderfully shocking Eden Lake picked up on with its teenage violence, and class anxiety two years ago, and there is an immediacy in the horror element that makes for uncomfortable viewing, just like with James Watkins slow-burner of a movie.
Admittedly, there are a few moments when Nakata steps over the line- the repeated sight of very young teen suicide are a somewhat difficult pill to swallow, especially when just one sequence, done subtely enough would have pounded the message home harder, and the sight of paedophiles maskerading as teen girls was slightly in bad taste. The ending too, rather descended into the near-ludicrous very quickly, and the claustrophobic feel of the movie was entirely discarded in favour of higher-octane thrills.
Somewhat infuriatingly, some reviews have also struggled with Nakata’s device of putting his characters in a tangible, though imaginary environment for their interactions, especially in the context of Nakata’s other cult works, including Ringu. Personally, I thought it was a touch of genius, and another high-point in a film that sadly offered too few, though its effect was somewhat dampened by repetition- the manifestation of the chat room as a real environment not only dealt with the potential boredom of watching five people typing on their phones, it offered an insight into the appeal of the chatroom to chaotic identities like the teens in Chatroom. In that environment they can walk with a swagger that maskes their crises, they can even change their physical appearance to appear more confident and approachable (as William does throughout his Jekyll and Hyde act).
But really, so what if this is nothing like Ringu? Variety is the spice of life. The only problem, and the reason for the confused reactions concerning the film’s identity, is that Hideo Nakata, or the Nakata we have become familiar with, is pretty absent from the film’s makeup aside from his visuals and his ideas. The direction, or more appropriately the follow through of those ideas is the real problem at the root of all the others, and you have to wonder whether the panning that the American Ring 2 got has shaken his confidence.
As much as I enjoyed Chatroom’s ideas, and the chemistry between Aaron Johnson and Matthew Beard, I believe it would have worked a lot better as a short film. The ideas are intriguing, particularly the parental anxiety caused by chat room culture, and the haven offered to teens struggling with their sense of self as its flipside, as well as the claustrophobia of domineering, and dangerous relationships, but their was something lacking in the substance of the narrative that left it feeling rather stretched and bloated in the end.
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