Welcome to our third day of SXSW coverage (catch up on it all here).
Though I got a bit of a late start on day three of SXSW, I still managed to work in three films, all of which were kind of horrifying and unsettling for vastly different reasons. Alex Winter’s Deep Web raised the bar for the rest of the day with its unflinching look at the “dark net” and the fear it provokes in governments, The Frontier was horrifyingly bad and The Corpse of Anna Fritz was a bleak, disturbing film that made maximum use out of its minimal concept and setting. There was more divergence in quality today than the experience has offered so far, with Deep Web standing out as an exceptional documentary at a documentary-heavy festival and The Frontier sadly standing out as one of the worst films I’ve ever seen come from SXSW.
Starting with the good, Deep Web is a spiritual sequel to Winter’s previous SXSW documentary Downloaded. Both films chronicle maverick tech geniuses and their defining inventions’ impact on illicit trade—Downloaded went deep with Napster while Deep Web profiles Silk Road. Chances are that if you’re familiar with Silk Road, you view it as a drug trade mecca, a platform for selling and moving narcotics anonymously. You might even know of “the Dread Pirate Roberts,” the alias of Ross Ulbricht, alleged drug kingpin and mastermind behind the Silk Road. The Silk Road became the involuntary whipping boy for the drug war’s evolution in the technologically advanced 21st century, but as Winter shows, Ulbricht and his peers intended it to be a political statement on the state’s infringement of privacy and freedom.
Whether you believe the authenticity of that statement is ultimately irrelevant as far as Winter’s documentary goes. Deep Web is less concerned with glorifying the Libertarian ideology that led to Ulbricht’s creation of the network than it is with shining a light on the highly questionable methods the US government took when bringing that system down. As much a documentary on the impact technology has had on constitutional law as it is on the digital black market, Deep Web is powerful material, forcing viewers to ask themselves what costs they’re willing to pay in order to “win” the war on drugs and provoking similar questions about the erosion of privacy in the tech era.
The film’s strongest moments are towards its end, as Winter and his crew reveal the ways Ulbricht’s defense was basically hampered by a judicial process that was unwilling to let those questions get played out in public. The interview subjects may have varying levels of uncertainty when it comes to Ulbricht’s involvement with Silk Road, but nearly all of them agree that the government’s refusal to state how they accessed Silk Road’s Iceland-based servers indicates that foul play was involved. Some critics take this further and suggest our government is utilizing uncertainty over digital legality to bypass the fourth amendment and possibly even the sovereignty of other nations. You don’t have to be a Silk Road supporter to see the dangers of this kind of behavior on the government’s part, especially when you factor in the now confirmed domestic surveillance carried out by the NSA on American citizens. Winter also presents a convincing argument that the federal government crucified Ulbricht in the court of public opinion by drumming up murder for hire allegations that were then mysteriously dropped long before the case went to trial.
The film’s chief weakness is that Ulbricht himself is never interviewed due to his imprisonment, leaving him to be spoken for by his parents and friends as well as other hacktivists and Libertarians who view him as an almost messianic figure. This makes it seem like the darker aspects of the Silk Road are covered up, but as a Baltimore politician points out in the film, the advent of hubs like the Silk Road have arguably made the streets safer by giving buyers more power in drug deals. The use of review systems in particular are singled out as being a far more effective way of bringing about decreased violence than any privatized prison system you could imagine. These moments in the film are particularly well suited for provoking the overall conversation about the costs of these kinds of “wars” and prove that as effective as Deep Web is as a standalone, it’s even more effective as a small part of a much larger, longer conversation.
Conversations of a much different sort were provoked by The Frontier, a sort of Western neo-noir set in one small desert hotel where the clientele aren’t quite what they seem. Ineptly directed by first timer Oren Shai, The Frontier functions like a Tommy Wiseau adaptation of a Coen Brothers knock off, complete with stunted acting, a nonsensical plot involving a number of random entrances and exits, and awkward dialogue. Jocelin Donahue is utterly wasted in the lead role of Laine, a young woman who shows up at the titular Frontier with a story about an abusive boyfriend that wins her the sympathy of hotel proprietor Luanne (Kelly Lynch). Neither actress is given decent material to work with, but Donahue at least gives Laine a cunning, smoldering presence. By contrast, Lynch imbues Luanne with all the verve of microwaved French fries, limp and bland and pointless.
The film spends a frustrating amount of time introducing its various players, mostly through the use of confusing entrances that are nearly as random as anything out of The Room. There’s a gruff sheriff who attempts to lure Laine over to his house for some ribeye, and an angry bearded man whose connection to the hotel is never explained until the “twist” reveals itself, and even a Denny type in Eddie, a mysteriously aged hot rodder who rejects coffee because it keeps him awake and dances like a Tim & Eric version of that iconic Pulp Fiction scene. These aren’t even the weirdest characters, though—that honor belongs to Jamie Harris’ pube mustache Brit playboy and Izabella Miko’s potentially brain damaged Gloria.
The Frontier is numbingly stupid and poorly acted and it’s not even entertaining enough to inspire a cult devoted to its awfulness. Had Shai directed it with even an ounce of style or adventurousness, The Frontier would at least have been a watchable failure, but instead it is merely a sad mess, a film that never gets enough elevation to actually crash and burn.
The Corpse of Anna Fritz
The Corpse of Anna Fritz could easily have been a disaster on par with The Frontier, but its impeccable craftsmanship allowed its disturbing plot to rise above juvenilia and become something not necessarily terrifying but certainly bleak and brutal. Set almost exclusively in a morgue where the body of world famous actress Anna Fritz is currently resting, the film is cut from similar thematic cloth as Deep Web, asking three young men and the viewers how far they would be willing to go to save themselves.
The plot is set in motion when Pau, an orderly at the hospital, takes a picture of Fritz’s corpse and sends it to his friends. When they pop by to convince Pau to come to a party later that evening, he takes them down to look at the body in person, and things unsurprisingly devolve from there. Initially I thought The Corpse of Anna Fritz was going to be a carbon copy of the heinous Deadgirl, a Canadian indie flick about a couple kids who stumble across a young woman’s corpse in an abandoned mental hospital and rent it out to other young men for kicks, only to discover the corpse isn’t quite so dead after all. The trio of men at the heart of Anna Fritz are Spanish versions of America’s frat bro epidemic and Hector Hernandez Vicens first makes it seem like he is somewhat sympathetic to their viewpoints. But when the movie’s twist emerges, that instantly flies out the window.
Anna Fritz isn’t quite a horror work, it’s honestly closer to the grotesque thrillers coming out of new French cinema at the moment. The “scares” evolve out of the film’s tense pacing and escalating stakes, as well as Vicens’ technique of keeping the camera at low, odd angles in order to thin out the mise en scene. To go into too much detail would spoil the work Vicens and his crew put into maximizing the tension of a story set in a very confined space in almost real time. Suffice it to say that Anna Fritz does an excellent job not just of sickening the viewer but also keeping them at the edge of their sets, certain of the eventual outcome but totally uncertain of how or when it will arrive. Basically the opposite of The Frontier’s near alien take on a similarly minimalist space and plot, The Corpse of Anna Fritz is brutally effective and excitably exhausting.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.