I’m not entirely sure Black Box holds together all the way through, but it’s a fascinating debut feature and has many more interesting things on its mind than a lot of other, less obviously flawed films.
This review of Welcome to the Blumhouse: Black Box is spoiler-free.
Of the two films released today under Blumhouse’s Welcome to the Blumhouse umbrella, neither could really be classified as a horror. The Lie didn’t qualify at all; Black Box, a Black Mirror-like speculative sci-fi endeavor and the feature directing debut of Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., at least starts out with its feet in the genre. But after it has cycled through some admittedly overused imagery and plot beats, it opens out into territory more difficult to define, and that’s where, depending on your perspective, it either transcends the confines of a single genre or loses its way a little.
Personally, I’m in the latter camp, although I respect a lot of what Black Box accomplishes and believe that Osei-Kuffour Jr. has plenty of promise as a filmmaker. The direction of actors here is excellent, and the performances help to anchor a premise penned by the director alongside Wade Allain-Marcus and Stephen Herman that is compelling but on the farfetched side. Keeping the higher-level concepts on a human scale is to the film’s advantage; where it might have gone a little off the rails earlier, the plight of widowed, amnesiac photographer Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) is engaging enough that you’ll stay on-board just to see where it leads him.
Nolan lost his memory in the same car accident that took the life of his wife Rachel (Najah Bradley) and left him temporarily braindead. His miraculous recovery is the source of some speculation but has nonetheless left him with holes in his memory that have made the life of his elementary school-age daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) much harder than it should be. Her responsibilities now include helping her father to jog his memory, leaving Post-it notes all over the place to keep him abreast of routines, and talking him out of behaviors – such as smoking – that he never had in the first place. Unable to make any real progress and hung up on being unable to recall his late wife, he’s advised by his friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) to seek the help of Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), a neuropsychiatrist whose experimental memory-retrieval program has had some great results.
You probably think you know where this is going, and you might indeed be able to predict some of the events that follow in these early sequences. Nolan is hooked up to a black box and transported into the warped labyrinth of his subconscious, where familiar scenes from his life are blurred and inscrutable and a dark version of himself, credited as the Backwards Man and played by actor-contortionist Troy James, confronts him at every turn. This is the film at its most determined to shock and scare, with the Backwards Man making for a strikingly new twist on a longstanding and played-out genre tradition. Ever since Linda Blair spider-walked down the stairs in The Exorcist it seems like horror has been mandated to include at least one scene of otherworldly contortionism, but this is the closest you can probably get to a real-life version. It’s great fun.
It’s all less fun for Nolan, obviously, who not only has to grapple with this but also the implications of the subtly twisted scenes – his wedding, an old apartment – that he visits. Despite Gary’s insistence that he was a loving, devoted husband and father, is there a possibility, as his sessions suggest, that he was unfaithful or possibly even physically abusive? How do Charmaine Bingwa and Nyah Marie Johnson as a mother and daughter fit into the life he can’t remember? And can Dr. Brooks’s mantra of “I run my mind, it does not run me,” protect him from all the secrets that he’s going to uncover?
Answers to these questions are best left to be discovered on their own, but I personally felt like once the film moved away from its inventive and atmospheric first half it got bogged down by philosophical pontificating in the second. Black Box has a lot on its mind, granted, but that doesn’t mean it always knows how best to articulate those ideas. Without the scares and the carefully cultivated tension of the early going, something is lost, and the film doesn’t quite hold together until the end. It never totally lost my interest, though, and I was curious about what might happen all the way through. For a debut, Black Box is highly promising lo-fi sci-fi, and ironically enough you might remember it when you hear Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.’s name next.
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