The Screening Room | 'Unfriended' sequel a thrilling look at tech's hold on us

The Screening Room | 'Unfriended' sequel a thrilling look at tech's hold on us

Earlier this year, critics were falling all over themselves in praising Ari Aster's "Hereditary" as a horror classic, a game-changer in the genre that defied expectations and left viewers a quivering mess. I was ambivalent about the whole thing, seeing that film as overwrought, directionless and hardly worth the time invested once its premise was revealed.

Likely to be dismissed as exploitive but far more effective, timely and innovative is Stephen Susco's "Unfriended: Dark Web," a superior sequel to the 2014 Blumhouse Pictures feature that finds six friends gathering together for an online game night, only to uncover a dark subculture that leads to their undoing.

While the previous feature's threat was supernatural in nature, the enemy here is all too real — a network of anonymous mercenaries who do unspeakable acts for hire. While Susco's script ultimately goes a bit too far in imagining the reach and scope of this international group, the way in which he uses this as a metaphor to underscore the insidious way social media has infiltrated our lives couldn't be more timely or pointed.

What begins as an ordinary game night takes a dark turn when Matias (Colin Woodell) gets online with friends Damon (Andrew Lees), Kelly (Chelsea Alden), Nari (Betty Gabriel), Lexx (Savira Windyani) and AJ (Connor Del Rio). They all think this will be the usual weekly get-together, not knowing that their host is using a stolen computer to communicate with them.

Unbeknownst to the five friends, Matias starts getting instant messages, video calls and chat requests from people assuming he's the rightful owner of the purloined laptop. These missives become more and more ominous until Matias realizes he has stolen from someone who conducts transactions on the dark web, a supposedly untraceable subweb in which drugs are sold, kiddie porn is traded and murders are requested and paid for.

To give away more of the plot would ruin many of the surprises Susco has in store, but suffice it to say, all of Matias' friends eventually find themselves in danger from a group called Charon, their very lives threatened if they report anything they've stumbled upon from merely being associated with their sticky-fingered friend.

The film's aesthetic is visually simple but narratively complex. The entire movie screen consists of Matias' laptop screen, so what he sees, we see. Not only are we privy to his conversations with his friends, but also to instant messages he receives as well as live video feeds from members of Charon who are taunting him, along with those from his estranged girlfriend, Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras).

Presenting the story from this perspective makes for a completely immersive experience, and being required to watch various video streams simultaneously demands that the viewer pay attention to multiple stories at once. Far from distracting, this proves to be an invigorating exercise as Susco effectively paces each narrative strand so that they impact the main story in such a way that it builds tension to an almost unbearable level.

The acting in films like this is often overlooked, but the efforts of this young cast must be lauded as many are often acting alone, reacting to threats they cannot see and must imagine. All do a fine job buying into this premise and their characters' plights, which helps bring a vital realism to the film. More than anything, they provide characters we can relate to, making it easy for Susco to capitalize on our paranoia.

"Dark Web" states in no uncertain terms that while we may think the internet and social media are tools we use to navigate our daily life, they have in fact become a controlling agent that slipped from our grasp sometime ago. We've allowed this technology to control our lives and have willingly allowed it to infiltrate our homes.

The genie is out of the bottle, and Susco's work brutally and effectively shows what happens if we dare to think otherwise.

'Unfriended: The Dark Web' (★★★1/2 out of four)

Cast: Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel, Chelsea Alden, Colin Woddell, Andrew Lees, Stephanie Nogueras, Savira Windyani, Alex Mansour and Connor Del Rio.

Directed and written by Stephen Susco; produced by Timur Bekmambetov and Jason Blum.

A Universal Pictures release. 88 minutes. Rated R (disturbing violence, language and sexual references) At the AMC-Champaign 13. AMC-Danville Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Actors shine in powerful "Leave No Trace."().

There's an unassuming quality to writer/director Debra Granik's "Leave No Trace" that facilitates a sense of quiet power, its secret weapon.

Making her first feature since her impressive "Winter's Bone" in 2010, the filmmaker subscribes to the philosophy that less is more, an approach that's far too rare where American film is concerned, yet one that perfectly complements this tale of one veteran's struggle with PTSD and the collateral damage it inflicts on his teenage daughter whose entire life has been one built on a sense of paranoia and isolation.

Taking place just outside Portland, Ore., Will (Ben Foster) and his 13-year-old girl Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live in a vast wooded area that has become a refuge for the homeless, particularly veterans incapable of acclimating themselves to society. Their existence is simple but secure as they've built a modest compound hidden among the park's thick foliage and survive by living off the land, repurposing various kinds of scraps and materials as well as tending a garden. These two venture into town when they need vital supplies, Will stopping at the local VA to procure meds and pick up his disability check.

However, their lives are upended when one day Tom is spotted by a jogger which leads to a search of the woods by authorities and the father and daughter being taken into custody. Eventually, social services finds them a home to live in, Will is given a job at a local farm and his daughter is enrolled in school, making friends and beginning to discover all she has missed out on. Unfortunately, Will simply can't cope in this environment, and soon he and Tom pack up and are on the road again, searching for a place where he can live in peace.

Granik's realistic approach grounds the film effectively, and while she doesn't portray the characters' plight in a matter-of-fact manner, the implication is that Will's plight is more common than we realize and that attention must be paid to those like him who are suffering in our midst. Her script is one of economy as the story steadily progresses from one scene to the next, dialogue kept to a minimum.

As such, the performances of the two leads are of vital importance in conveying all that's not said, and the work on display from the duo is exceptional. Foster continues to be one of the most effective, under-the-radar film actors we have, constantly challenging himself with complex roles, answering each time with a performance that's nuanced and potent. So much of what Hal is contending with is internal, and the actor poignantly conveys his torment without resorting to histrionics or scene-rending theatrics, giving us a tortured soul that's hard to shake.

Equally good is McKenzie, a young actress who, if fate is kind, will get the notoriety Jennifer Lawrence did when she burst on the screen in "Winter's Bone." There's a subtle intensity at play early on in her performance, as her Tom mirrors her father's behavior, knowing no other. However, once she experiences the conveniences of everyday life and wishes to stay in the world of running water and indoor heat, an aching longing for a normalcy she has never known steadily creeps in, the actress portraying this with an increasing sense of desire that's heartbreaking.

Granik's work — including her first film "Down to the Bone" and the documentary "Stray Dog" — have dealt with people living on the margins, those affected by poverty, lack of education or personal tragedy. These subjects couldn't be more timely and are in need of being examined by her and equally talented filmmakers.

Here's hoping there won't be another 14-year gap between "Leave No Trace" and her next feature film, as her vital voice is needed now more than ever.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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