Backgammon (2015) ***
D: Francisco Orvañanos
C: Noah Silver, Brittany Allen, Alex Beh, Olivia Crocicchia, Christian Alexander
Plot Synopsis: Tensions rise when a college student, his girlfriend and another couple gather at a mansion for a weekend getaway.
Review: Back in the 80's and 90's, it was said that you had to grab the audience's attention within the first thirty minutes of a movie. This gave filmmakers a chance to allow their stories to unfold in a carefully considered way. That logic has changed. Nowadays, you have to grab their attention within the first three minutes.
If you subscribe to the latter, then you shouldn't even bother with Backgammon. The story involves five characters who dislike each other for assorted reasons and the psychological warfare that ensures between them while spending the weekend at an isolated mansion. The focus, in particular, is placed on an introverted college student (Noah Silver) who finds himself intrigued by the sister of a friend (Brittany Allen).
This female acquaintance is obviously troubled, yet Silver's character connects with her. He sees the good, even when everyone else is willing to walk away, even when her boyfriend disappears under mysterious circumstances. However, this dynamic isn't merely one sided. Allen's character gets Silver's in a way that no one else seems to. From this scenario, a myriad of themes & sentiments are explored.
There's pain, anguish, frustration, attraction, desire, jealousy, yearning, unease & even joy. That's a lot of ground to cover in 89 minutes, yet those emotions come across tangibly. The film takes the time to establish the setting, who the characters are, why they feel the way that they do and just when we think we know where things are going, they spring one surprising plot development after another. This is perfectly highlighted in the last five minutes, a moment that's both inevitable and unexpected all at the same time.
What's admirable about this approach is that they don't cheat to arrive at these moments. When dealing with all of these emotions, they make sure to lay out a foundation for everything that's happening. This extends right down to the details. There's a Dorian Gray type painting that (seemingly) changes on its own to reflect the mental state of a character. There's the setting, a mansion that has a sense of grandeur, but also has a foreboding quality. It's metaphorical of the characters in that they look perfect on the exterior, but, behind closed doors, their connection to one another is fractured.
In another well realized facet, one of the main character's disappears for the remainder of the running time. However, their presence is supposed to be felt throughout the rest of the proceedings, as it informs the choices that two of the characters make. To make viewers feel the presence of a character who doesn't appear, physically (on screen), is no easy task, but they pull it off.
Now, it isn't always successful in its attempts. The characters often quote famous writers. Unless your familiar with the works of every writer quoted, some of the references will go right over your head. It's also jarring in that it doesn't come across as a natural extension of how the characters would interact. I get that they wanted to stay true to the source material, a book entitled Bloody Baudelaire (by R.B. Russell), but what works on page, doesn't necessarily translate to screen. That's why a movie adaptation can never be 100% faithful to the book.
On the production side, both Noah Silver & Brittany Allen have obvious screen presence. The overall visual presentation sells you on the premise from the locations, to the striking cinematography, to the costuming, to the set decoration. As a whole, Backgammon is not only technically proficient, but it's also one of those movies that makes you want to go back and re-evaluate what you just watched. The answers aren't easy and neatly laid out, but the best films shouldn't be easy. They should invite viewers to bring their own perceptions to the viewing experience and to ask them what they took from it. Backgammon does exactly that.
To execute this, a more deliberate pace is employed. When it comes to any form of suspense, you have to allow it to marinate, to develop over time. Suspense is a feeling that's gradually built over a sustained period. When it comes to painful emotions and what's causing them, the pieces have to be laid out so that you can understand what's causing them. This deliberate approach is bound to turn off attention deficit viewers. However, for those willing to take the time, there's rewards to be found. [Not Rated] 89 minutes.
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