Review: The Subject

Directed by Lanie Zipoy and written by Chisa Hutchinson, Phil Waterhouse (Jason Biggs) is a documentarian struggling to move on after he witnesses the murder of one of his subjects until he slowly realises that he has now unwittingly becoming someone else’s subject. Also starring: Aunjanue Ellis, Anabelle Acosta, Nile Bullock, Caleb Eberhardt, Brian McManamon, Giordan Diaz and Carra Patterson.

The film opens on a quick note of suspense, before diving into the drama, it kicks things off in a way that instantly causes you to be suspicious and pay attention to the details in case they drop clues to lead to the new voyeur in Phil’s life. It’s a great start and burst of energy to draw you into a story that then holds your attention for the remainder of its 115-minutes with a mix of personal drama, moral quandaries and stalking. It’s perhaps best not to go into the film expecting a full out thriller because that’s not what it’s trying to be, the suspense and stalking elements of the film are lightly sprinkled throughout its dramatic tale, they add just enough tension but don’t take away from the larger exploration of Phil’s life and the consequences of his choices.

The name Jason Biggs is synonymous with American Pie and he’s done a great deal of comedy over the years but every now and then you get to see a speck of his more serious side and with this role he really gets to stretch those dramatic muscles. It’s a very interesting role for him to take on as there’s a gradual change to the character throughout, ending in a significantly different place than he started. He has to play with the likability and sympathy, starting out on neutral ground but slowly descending into something oblivious, arrogant or even immoral but each viewer will likely have a different perspective of his choices. It’s an emotional, strong performance that flawlessly brings through those changes gradually but in a very visible manner. Pairing him with Aunjanue Ellis was a fantastic piece of casting, she sadly may not appear in the story until the last half hour but her impact nearly blows the rest of the film out of the water, making it feel simply a set up for her arrival. Ellis holds such an impressive presence, there’s a gigantic amount of emotion running through her character and one of the things she’s always been brilliant at is showing the anger and aggression that’s under the surface without needing to present it in an overt manner, her facial cues alone speak to it plenty. Their scenes together have a palpable tension, you’re almost holding your breath as their interaction escalates, it’s an extremely captivating sequence to watch unfold. It’s a shame that Anabelle Acosta’s character doesn’t get to be too involved with the story overall, she has a very natural presence and her portrayal offers a sympathetic perspective for viewers.

The writing hits upon a lot of relevant notes including white privilege, an unjust system and elitism but also the ethics of documentary filmmaking in pivotal moments where you have to choose whether to intervene. Phil’s documentary surrounding the subject who was killed receives a review which accuses him of exploitation which sends him down the road that the film ultimately explores and while not immediately apparent, the real reasons behind his internal conflict become very clear. It dives into questioning what he could have done differently, if he ignored the possibility to help this young man to find opportunities for a better life and whether he’s truly aware of all the advantages that he’s received himself since childhood. He’s too busy looking inward to process what’s really going on around him, or to think of the other people his actions had consequences for until they’re in front of him.

It also touches upon the idea of this class of old-school filmmakers who believe that there’s a certain number of qualifications needed before you can pick up a camera and learn which is such an unnecessary and outdated prejudice, when anyone who owns a smartphone has all the tools they need. The different ethical and moral points that it explores are all current and compelling and the way that the writing introduces them through both the tension and drama works extremely well to allow time for you to gather your own opinion before it hits its climax. The writing is of a great quality all throughout the film, the format, the dialogue, the pacing, it all works together smoothly to guide you through the story and keep your attention for the entirety.

Zipoy’s direction matches that writing style exceptionally well, it takes on the themes of its story, it almost has a documentary style to it in earlier moments, starting out simply following the characters but as it reaches its peak of tension, it becomes more intimate and gets close enough that you can’t escape the emotion. It’s supported by a very subtle score which allows for those moments of intensity to sit in their silence, giving you nothing to distract so you have no option but to really take in that tension which makes it all the more impactful.

The Subject is unexpectedly emotional, impressively gripping and full of tension, with a satisfyingly dramatic turn from Jason Biggs and a brilliantly powerful performance from Aunjanue Ellis. Rather than being a thriller full of twists and turns, instead it’s an intimate drama that slowly guides you to an impactful finale, through its impeccable use of tension and suspense in an understated manner. There’s no cheap tricks or shock tactics to be found, it’s simply a genuinely well written and directed story that guides you where you need to go and asks plenty of questions along the way. The ways that the filmmakers have used that tension to draw you into a much larger story is incredibly impressive and effective. Zipoy and Hutchinson make a fantastic team and have created a drama that has a lot to say and a very persuasive, enthralling way of saying it.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

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