Fantastic Fest 2023 – Trapped in a Small Space: Bark and #Manhole

Fantastic Fest 2023 – Trapped in a Small Space: Bark and #Manhole

Bark – dir. Marc Schölermann

The first of two “trapped in a small space” films I’ve caught at Fantastic Fest comes in the form of Bark, the harrowing tale of Nolan (Michael Westin) a man who awakens to find himself tied to a tree in the middle of the woods. He has no clue how he got there or why he’s being held captive, and the bleeding wound on his head ain’t helping. He hasn’t any food or water, and when it comes to using his feet in place of his hands, he might as well not even have feet. Basically, he’s fucked.

Amidst a fit of hallucinations, he’s soon acquainted with a flesh and blood human being (A.J. Buckley). He calls himself The Outdoorsman, and he’s notably lackadaisical about offering the trapped man any assistance. Before long it becomes clear that he’s not planning on helping at all.

Director Marc Schöllerman maximizes use of the setting to evoke terror from Nolan’s horrifying nightmare of a situation. The camera captures the beauty of the woods at large, and pulls no punches in placing the verdant vistas in stark contrast to the rope wounds on Nolan’s wrists, the terror in his increasingly haggard eyes, and the damp crotch of his formerly crisp slacks. The bulk of exposition is done through these small details — an expensive watch, high-end loafers, the tight haircut. All employed to illustrate the kind of life Nolan had before his current predicament. Basically, he was far from being an outdoorsy type.

What follows is a battle of wills and skills, with The Outdoorsman acting as a mirror-world psychologist to the trapped man. No, he won’t say why he’s unwilling to help Nolan, but perhaps the captive man can do some soul searching and figure it out himself. This mental struggle cooks while Nolan tries to come up with concrete ways to break free, even as his body breaks down.

At feature length, there are segments of the film that lose the pressure cooker energy that it seeks. It’s not so much that the steam is let out, but rather that certain portions feel a touch repetitive. During the third act transition it’s hard not to feel a sense of impatience in waiting for the hammer to fall. But when it falls, it falls hard, leading to a compelling third act that recontextualizes everything that came before.

Being a single location thriller, Bark is the type of movie that lives and dies by its performances, and the two leads rise to the occasion in a big way. These two men spend the film seeking information from one another while being wholly unwilling to give anything up themselves, and they do so from very different worlds. Weston and Buckley sizzle throughout, clinically revealing their character motivations at a calculated drip, keeping the film lively even in the aforementioned weeds of repetitiveness.

Ultimately, Bark takes your standard single location thriller and elevates it through strong filmmaking and exceptional performances, while also providing plenty of food for thought after the fact. I’m going to be thinking about the third act for a long time.

“Thinking about”…. Ya know what? Scratch that. I will be haunted by this for a long time.

#Manhole – dir. Kazuyoshi Kumakiri

Yes, the name of the movie is #Manhole, pronounced “hashtag manhole,” and it’s the second trapped-in-a-small space thriller at this year’s Fantastic Fest. It follows a terrible night in the life of Shunsuke (Yûto Nakajima), a young man out for some drinks with coworkers on the eve of his wedding. After tying on a hearty buzz, he begins his trek home…and promptly falls into an open manhole. His leg is busted, rain is pouring into the sewer, and for some odd reason the GPS on his phone is being unhelpful at best and inaccurate at worst. When phone calls don’t get him the assistance he needs, he hatches a brilliant plan: make a Pecker account (see: Twitter) and try to make his plight go viral.

And that’s about all I can say. 

At first, the film is reminiscent of Buried, insofar as the visual limits of single-location cinema, as well as the usage of the audience’s familiarity with technology to move the plot forward. It’s equal parts exciting and frustrating to watch Shunsuke navigate his circumstances. At times, his seeming unwillingness to engage obvious solutions made me want to scream, but as the film progresses, his reasoning crystallizes in very surprising ways.

It would be a shame so spoil the fun, but a million brains given a million years could never predict where the film goes. The inherent silliness of the plot may prove distasteful to some viewers, but it’s such a bold swing that it’s hard to feel anything but excited by what transpires. And in hindsight, the absolutely bonkers nature of the proceedings have a strong thematic resonance. The film provokes thought on matters of gender politics, male loneliness, relationship entitlement, social media-based justice, and the slow crawl of bureaucracy. It’s smarter than it’ll ever get credit for, which buys #Manhole enough novelty to merit a second viewing. Beyond that, it probably expires, but I, for one, can’t wait to watch someone else watch this movie. Thems the goods.

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