Confined-setting horror films require airtight logistical construction: If both good and evil characters don’t behave in ways that make sense vis-à-vis their circumstances, any sense of terror quickly dissipates. Such is the problem with ATM, the tale of three young professionals who on their way home from a company Christmas party find themselves trapped in an ATM kiosk in the middle of an enormous abandoned parking lot by a faceless psycho in a hooded winter jacket. Director David Brooks’s film, written by Buried scribe Chris Sparling, provides one moment of pure, genuine tension when David (Brian Geraghty), his love interest Emily (Alice Eve), and his obnoxious friend Corey (Josh Peck) first find themselves confronted by their tormentor standing motionless in the lot, a sudden, unnerving development that prompts a debate between David and Corey over whether the man is menacing or merely waiting to use the ATM—a discussion that, more fundamentally, speaks to the notion of whether the modern world is a place where safety and security are to be expected and assumed, or if life is truly random, irrational, and dangerous. Alas, Brooks barely milks that suspense for his characters, having his hooded fiend almost immediately confirm his malevolence by murdering a dog walker, thus setting in motion a cat-and-mouse game in which the killer attempts to infiltrate the ATM, and the trio strive to escape, in consistently baffling ways.
Given their glass-windowed confines, David, Corey and Emily seem to be easy prey, and the fact that the ATM’s door lock is broken only compounds that notion. Nonetheless, despite the killer’s detailed diagram-drawing preparations for his plans, ATM instead has him attempt to break into the booth from the rear, a strategy that makes no sense (it repeatedly gives his would-be victims opportunities to flee out the front) and is coupled with all sorts of questions that are never answered, such as why Corey lies about having a lighter, why the killer never tries the front door or smashing his way inside the enclosure, or why he’s even chosen this particular venue (which is his trademark, apparently) for terrorizing innocents. Since the killer has no modus operandi, the fact that David is an investment advisor who recently lost a client half of his 401(k) savings is irrelevant to the story; topical embellishment aside, Brooks’s characters aren’t punished for who they are or what they’ve done, but rather for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
ATM at least initially establishes its characters as reasonably fleshed-out people, but given their consistent inability to get away from a killer whose ploys are far from shrewd, it’s ultimately hard to feel anything about their suffering—or the film’s vain stabs at drumming up horror from plot hole-pockmarked action—except first irritation, and then disinterest.