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Broadcast Signal Intrusion
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by Jay Seaver

"For those who enjoy unsolved mysteries."
3 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Broadcast Signal Intrusion" shows how thin the line between "good thriller" and "bad mystery" is, and how that can mostly be a matter of perspective. The filmmakers do a pretty terrific job of building atmosphere and laying out intriguing pieces, and if you mostly just want to feel a movie, it's successful more or less right up to the end. If you enjoy solving a puzzle, or more often vicariously experiencing someone else figuring something out, it may eventually turn sour.

It opens in 1999, with James (Harry Shum Jr.) working nights in a TV station, moving their archive from analog tape to DVD-R, checking to make sure that the contents are what they say. He stumbles on a night in 1987 when the station's signal was hijacked by some creepy figure in a rubber mask, which he learns is an unsolved mystery, the "Sal-E Sparx Incident", which happened two nights a week apart, with the FBI and FCC confiscating much of the evidence. Fellow A/V enthusiast Chester (Arif Yampolsky) gets him video of the other example, and he contacts Dr. Stuart Lithgow (Steve Pringle), the FCC bureau chief who investigated the incident at the time. Lithgow lets slip that there were rumors of a third incident in 1997, and it seems like it can't be a coincidence that it was the day after James's wife Hannah disappeared. Also unlikely to be coincidences: The young woman (Kelley Mack) following him and the message on an electronic bulletin board hinting that there's more information to be found.

Director Jacob Gentry and writers Phil Drinkater & Tim Woodall set up an intriguing set-up here, but it's one that may be too good a mystery for James to actually solve. It's not long before the sheer number of people who don't just get inserted into the story but seem to insert themselves to both point James in the direction he needs to go and tell him that no good will come of going there is more than the story can bear. It's the sort of thing where, once the situation becomes a bit clearer, viewers may find themselves scratching their heads, wondering why these guys are making so much effort to do things whose entire point is to lead a sleuth back to them - indeed, the way that they know the right moment to do so can almost seem like omniscience even as their ability to trash an apartment but leave the incriminating evidence where James can easily find it suggests something else - and if you're trying to make sense of it, very frustrating.

The film works its best when this comes across as a sort of twisted need to confess, that someone is feeling a combination of pride and guilt so powerful that they need to cryptically announce their crimes and even leave a trail back. Beyond James and Kelley Mack's Alice, most of the other characters are only there for one or two scenes, and it's the "guest stars" in the scenes where James really seems to be making progress, most notably Chris Sullivan. It's a complement to the guilt that James carries around, and Harry Shum Jr. is quietly excellent carrying that around; even if there was not actually anything he could do about what happened to Hannah; he always seems weighted, and he's always anticipating what he'll feel if he doesn't keep pushing.

Mostly, though, the film works by giving the audience the creeps; the credits specify other names for the "intrusions" and it likely helps make them seem otherworldly relative to the real world in which James navigates. If they weren't actually shot on VHS, they feel that way, grainy and glitchy and lit terribly, often pulled in much closer than the main footage is because that's the only way to get a picture. Gentry does things to make the audience a little unmoored as the film goes on, like how the camera work is steady in the first repeated shot of James walking by a bar but practically reeling later on, while a road trip is cut in such a way that the world seems to change in moments rather than them moving from one to another. It paradoxically makes other scenes where things hold steady more unnerving, giving the audience the sense that there's more Gentry wants them to notice but they can't quite see it.

It mostly holds together, and if it doesn't, it's not terribly hard to extrapolate a situation that kind of makes sense, potentially, or make the argument that the experience has made James an unreliable narrator. Some might claim that that's cheating, and I wouldn't necessarily argue; as a fan of mystery stories I wanted it to come together more. But it works well enough in the moment, and if one enjoys the thrill of not knowing more than the thrill of finding out, it certainly delivers that.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34120&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/06/21 20:49:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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