If there’s one thing consistently more frustrating than a film being out-and-out unwatchable it’s a film on the cusp of being really good if not for something irredeemable getting in the film’s own way. All of the elements to make the vision happen are there and firing; the acting is solid to standout across the board; the non-linear structure is used well; and the writing is done well…for the most part. Where 96 Minutes loses effectiveness in intensity and diverts into frustration is in the primary catalyst for the film’s conflict. Partly the character at the center of it, but mostly our lack of significant knowledge about him that justifies him doing what he does and allows us to connect with the motive. I gather that there’s much more to him beyond ignorance and anger at his current situation (at least I hope so), but all of that story happens over the course of the prior 16 years before the 96 minutes of time we experience.
Like the works of the writer and filmmaker tandem of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga (Amorres Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) 96 Minutes jumps between past and present to great effect. If told linearly the first two-thirds of the picture would come across relatively dry and unappealing, but inter-cutting the action that occurs at the end of the story with the events that led to it keep you engaged while the pieces gradually fall into place. All the while you’re building strong sympathy for a handful of the characters you don’t want to see end up in the situation that they do, and that’s a credit to actors Brittany Snow, Christian Serratos and Evan Ross and the way those characters were written for them to be.
Then the writing fails one of them and you’re instantly pulled out of the picture for a few moments of contrivance. It needed a character to snap and it needed another character to snap along with him, and it needed them to do it within 96 minutes.
I know why it happens, but I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it because I don’t know enough about the character to understand why they would revert to ideas they have and decisions they make. I don’t buy it because all we see is affection and intelligence despite environment from one of them, and don’t see the environment ever seep through his character until that moment (which I’ll remain vague about as it may not bother others). It’s more than just succumbing to weakness, it’s succumbing to stupidity for the sake of another that is stupid. Maybe I could understand if I experienced their history together instead of inferred it via exposition, but I don’t. I only know them for 96 minutes.
To the film’s credit it pulls it together well for the remainder of the final act and earns back much of the goodwill it garnered and lost at random points during the first two-thirds. It tightens up and the emotional elements are genuine and effective to close things up. The foreshadowed theme of the final scene could have felt heavy-handed and obvious, but it’s a well-written scene and performed with sincerity and believability.
If not for the short time-frame we’re given to know these characters (especially the important ones) 96 Minutes could have developed into something relatively powerful and the pieces that felt inorganic and unnatural could have felt just that. I understand what the filmmaker was getting at, I just didn’t feel it. I needed more. If the cost of it was to change the title to 120 Minutes then so be it.