This review of the Rob Savage movie Dashcam is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.
While found footage as a style of film form has been around for decades, the variation of screen-life — using a computer or phone screen as the site of the video recording — is still relatively fresh. There’s a great wealth of potential in this sub-genre that offers new formats for inventive filmmakers to experiment with. The good news for these filmmakers is that Rob Savage‘s Dashcam has provided them with a completely effective example of what not to do.
The bad news is that for audiences, this new horror film is a grating exercise that amounts to nothing redeemable or creative. With a merciful but still too-long runtime of about seventy-five minutes, Dashcam quickly sets up its narrative. Annie Hardy (played by the indie rock singer of the same name) is a musician and right-wing troll from LA who packs up her MAGA hat and the phone she uses to live-stream impromptu concerts and gets on a flight to London. Her destination: the home of a former bandmate, Stretch (Amar Chadha-Patel), who is now working as a food delivery driver.
In between terrible freestyle raps and rants about mask-mandates, Annie engages with the live-stream viewers who egg her on. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for Stretch’s girlfriend to become fed up with the petulant provocateur. But Stretch, for reasons that are never made clear because the movie has little-to-no interest in character construction or development beyond cliches, is less inclined to kick her out. While the couple fights, Annie steals his car and phone.
When she jokingly accepts a delivery order that comes in on Stretch’s phone, Dashcam actually gets going. Annie ends up at a chip shop, where the owner mysteriously requests that she transport an apparently sick woman to another location for a hefty fee. Annie accepts, but it doesn’t take long before the woman becomes increasingly distraught and dangerous. When Stretch tracks Annie down, the strange situation devolves into an all-out paranormal fight for survival.
Savage is clearly pulling inspiration from The Blair Witch Project, but where that movie successfully pulled off a tense sense of atmosphere, Savage is apparently hoping to make an impact by having an incessantly irritating character combat vaguely monstrous beings. And make no mistake, there are many horror films that have delivered obnoxious characters who are still worth rooting for. Or who are easy to gleefully root against as they’re slaughtered. But Annie’s insufferable personality and Dashcam‘s gestures at contemporary political divisions are neither insightful nor effective.
What it is, instead, is a cheap attempt at a shortcut to provocation. Unfortunately — and I would think that a film very much about being on the internet would understand this — the inflammatory statements that come from Annie are so one-note and familiar to anyone who has scrolled through a comment section in the last year and a half, that there’s very little to be shocked about. If Dashcam had provided Annie with some sort of depth, even though it wouldn’t be enough to entirely salvage the movie, it would have at least been an attempt at something interesting instead of just being tiring.
And yet, for all of the protagonist’s exasperatingly unbearable qualities, the most frustrating aspect of the movie is still its direction. Savage, whose most recent prior endeavor is the Zoom-horror film Host, has an investment in the screen-life mode, which makes it all the more vexing that he doesn’t appear interested in using the techniques that the format offers.
Take, for example, the film’s editing. Dashcam‘s story takes place entirely via Annie’s live-stream feed on her phone. It comes close to having the bulk of the movie take place as a single long take that is seen through the screen, except for some jarring cuts that remind us of the intrusion of conventional film techniques into the supposedly “live” video imagery.
Some screen-life films, such as the exemplary Unfriended, create the sensation that it consists of a long take. This, on its own, is neither good nor bad. A successful film in this genre doesn’t need to strictly stick to complete fidelity of the experience of watching something on a computer or phone. But if editing is going to be included, I have to imagine that it would be much better if it was integrated into the format.
Techniques such as glitches and static are staples of found footage. Incomprehensible and jarring images can rack up tension and further the chaos. Considering that screen-life films tend to take place over a platform that uses an internet connection, there’s endless potential for a shaky connection or a buffering wheel to disrupt the flow of video imagery enough to implement a seamless cut. Indeed, in Dashcam, there are moments where the internet connection does fail, but this has no effect on the imagery, which still sticks with the POV of Annie’s phone.
Rather than try to utilize the potential and the limits that come with faithfully adhering to the realism of a live-stream format, Savage cuts as if he’s making a conventional film. And, ultimately, considering he has no interest in using the format he’s chosen, even if Dashcam had a better story, it would still be a failed exercise.
Therein lies the final nail in the coffin for Dashcam. There are very few perfect films. Most have issues, many can overcome them. Jokes can fall flat, jump-scares can lack impact, and characters can be one-dimensional. There are ways to compensate. But if a movie treats its technical conceit as nothing more than a gimmick and not an opportunity to utilize new methods and advance an emerging genre, then it’s clear it doesn’t even have the faith in itself needed to accomplish anything bold or worthwhile. Instead, what we’re left with is wasted potential and seventy-five minutes of life that we’ll never get back.