As many BTM readers are aware, the Seattle International Film Festival is in full swing and this year’s slate has been full of promising indies. Sadly, I missed Wednesday night’s documentary, Charles Bradley: Soul of America, following the singer over the months leading up to his debut release. (If you haven’t heard the 60-something year old’s cover of Nirvana’s Stay Away, you’re robbing yourself of pure joy.) But my disappointment was swiftly quelled as Thursday night saw the world premiere of 419 a found footage/documentary-style thriller… and I DID get to see this one.
Let me start this review with a small confession: I’m usually not a fan of reality-style faux-documentaries. I honestly thought the The Blair Witch Project was the most overrated thing since Starbucks (hi, Seattle) and Paranormal Activity had me rolling my eyes the entire time. It really doesn’t help that ever since HD tapes came around, literally hundreds of “movies” are cranked out by hack filmmakers yearly in hopes of being the next big Vimeo discovery. “Ooh, let’s document the rise of a boy band!” “Let’s capture the fall and rebirth of the world’s best (enter mundane vocation here)!” They always come off as so phony; drawing more ire from me than affection. Maybe I’m just a cynical jack who’s so busy trying to point out the strings, that I just can’t enjoy the puppet show. Well, that’s exactly what happened with 419. I was trying to find those seams, catch that glimpse behind the curtain. To my surprise, director Ned Thorne had created a totally believable story that not only made it past my internal polygraph test, but had me feeling more tense than any visit to the dentist.
The story centers around a group of friends, who’ve known each other since childhood. First, there’s Mike, an aspiring actor who’s a little less than responsible in life and finances. Having just scored a big commercial gig in South Africa, he’s made a nice little chunk of change – which he immediately loses in a “419” scam. Said scam, named after the Nigerian Criminal Code it breaks, should be familiar to anyone with a hotmail account. It’s the one where you only send a little money so some Nigerian prince can unlock millions of dollars from his dead father’s fortune. Of course, you’ll be rewarded 10% for your troubles. Well, Mike learns that sending a little money, leads to sending a lot of money and now he’s dead broke. Next there’s Scott who’s got a good head on his shoulders and has done well for himself in software. The two have always been close and the relationship has always been one where Scott picks up Mike’s messes. Trying to help his buddy get back on his feet, Scott enlists the help of their third friend, Ned, who’s an independent filmmaker. The idea: the three pals will take a trip to Cape Town, recording their entire journey, find the man who swindled Mike and bring him to justice. Then they’ll sell the resulting documentary.
Sound like a good plan? That’s because it isn’t. Right off the bat, we’re told that something violent occurred on this “adventure” and that’s when the guessing game begins. Meeting up with South African native Ezra, a friend Mike made during his commercial shoot, the men go on a wild goose chase through the ghettos of Cape Town searching for their deceiver. They go from nightclubs to townships that look like the Hoovervilles of District 9 and consistently turn up empty handed.
At a certain point, you feel every bit as exasperated as the characters… this shit just isn’t working, let’s go home. But with every wrong turn, tensions build and trust dwindles. Relationships begin to crumble as frustrations come to a head. This is the blessing and the curse of 419. Figuratively speaking, we know there’s a bomb under the table. Everyone’s eating dinner, oblivious to it, but we know it’s about to go off. At what point does everything go sour? Sadly, it’s at the very end. While the twist will have you thinking for a spell after the credits roll, it comes relatively fast and is a bit anti-climactic given the magnificent build-up Thorne’s managed to achieve. The bomb under our dinner table is just a couple of M80’s. Dangerous for sure, but the whole time I was hoping dinner would end with Cream of Mushroom Cloud.
All-in-all, the acting (particularly among the main four characters) is believable and top-notch. While I was skeptical at first of having anyone fall for one of these schemes as a major plot point, the story works amazingly well and I bought into everything. Considering the film is shot on handheld cameras, it never seemed to be “Blair Witch Shaky,” so I didn’t have to take Dramamine with my popcorn. The occasional use of CCTV footage as well as the inclusion of “current day” interviews also helps to break up the low-res DIY flip-cam footage.
I liked 419 and give it 3 out of 5 reels. Hopefully it will find a good distributor to do it justice. The film is fully engaging and never feels as low budget as it is. While the last half treads dangerously close to having the audience give up on the futility of their mission, Thorne manages to keep you hanging on with white knuckles. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, 419 could’ve definitely come off as just another fake documentary. Fortunately, it didn’t and I can’t wait to see what he cooks up for the next one.