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Fantastic Fest Review: Duress

By  · Published on September 29th, 2009

As you may have noticed from reading the daily reports from the Death Squad, a lot of this festival revolves around expectations and anticipation. We wait all year for the content to be announced, we pick the films about which we are most excited and hone in on those titles with tenacity. Then there are the secret screenings that thrive on conjecture and excitement. Contrarily, there are number of films that make the roster that we have no burning desire to see. For whatever reason, underselling synopses in the guide perhaps, there are films that we see either because it fills an otherwise empty time slot or because some of us still cling to the absurd idea of seeing everything at Fantastic Fest. For me, the film I was assigned to cover in which I had the least amount of interest was Duress. I expected absolutely nothing from this film, and it ended up knocking me on my ass.

Duress tells the story of Richard Barnett, a recent widower struggling to cope with his wife’s suicide. The grieving is compounded by the fact that he can no longer connect with his daughter. As if that weren’t enough, one night he enters a donut shop for some coffee and gets entangled in a serial killer’s deadly game. He is forced, initially at gunpoint, to take part in adding to this killer’s stable of victims. The killer then further tightens his grip on this poor schlub by threatening his family and requiring him to be at his beck and call.

This is a very cool little film. It is cold and haunting with an atmosphere of extreme dread. The cat and mouse aspect of the killer/father relationship was at times interesting and at others completely brutal. The film really explores the idea that a killer can exist in any decent human being and, given the right circumstances, that baser side of our nature can explosively manifest. It is also nice to see a horror/thriller every once and awhile that doesn’t use graphic violence as a crutch. Yes, this is a film about a serial killer, but the violence in the film is very subdued and hence more effective in my humble opinion. I enjoy films like Collateral wherein a regular person is forced, by a psycho, to make choices they otherwise would never dream of, but even within that set of films Duress stands apart.

The avenues this film ultimately explores are surprising and deliciously dark. It takes an already interesting concept and pushes it a few steps further to establish its own identity. I foresee the closing of the film creating a dividing line between viewers with some chastising the choice and others celebrating it; I found myself in the latter category. The conclusion of the film felt very authentic to me, a bit out thereperhaps, but I completely bought it. And even after all the screws are turned and I am sitting there already in shock, there was one final nail right into my heart that floored me. I liked the film until the ending, and then I really liked it.

Is the film flawless? Not at all. My biggest problem with the film is the unevenness of Martin Donovan’s performance. But I mean that in the sense that when he nails it, he really nails it. There are moments he has with his daughter that are so honest and painful that he broke my heart. But then there are moments that are so phony baloney that it almost drags the whole scene down into the realm of stereotypical direct-to-video stock. I think he’s a competent actor and the scenes where he wrestles with the morality of his predicament are nuanced and striking. Honestly, I feel this may be more of a directorial issue because as a director it is your job to illicit the appropriate responses from your actors. If Donovan doesn’t give you what you need the first time, do another take. My other problem is that I would have liked to have seen a little more menace from the killer played by Sakis Rouvas. By the end of the film, I understood, to a point, why he was holding back but I still think the movie would have benefited from having him be a super scary mofo to enhance the suspense. He nailed the disgusting charm of a serial killer’s mask of sanity, but he withheld the viciousness a little too much.

I was fully impressed by Duress and it is the biggest surprise I’ve experienced at this year’s fest. I don’t see this film getting a theatrical release but it will more than likely sneak its way onto the shelves at your local video store. I would highly recommend giving it a viewing but the caveat here is that you should not expect an enormous body count or extreme violence but rather a quiet, heavy psychological thriller.

The Upside: A unique, interesting thriller with a solid concept.

The Downside: A bit lacking in the performances.

On the Side: The film features a taught 78 minute run time which attributes to the film’s stellar pacing

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.