For roughly 30 minutes, it appears as if Open Windows has finally found a way for a film to dramatize how the Internet casually shapes our world—or, more specifically, how it provides us simultaneous illusions of power, safety, and privileged access that have proven dangerously and insidiously misleading, particularly for those who already have a penchant for hostility. The film obviously benefits from shrewd and fortuitous timing. With GamerGate and various recent controversies over leaked nude celebrity photos, not to mention, most obviously and alarmingly, the government’s confirmed surveillance of our communique, culture is primed for something that mines our justified paranoia, examining technology that allows all of us to function as one another’s perpetually imprisoning, wrathful Big Brother.
Nick Chambers (Elijah Wood) is an affable nerd who runs a website devoted to Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey), an actress with a bad-girl reputation that’s intended to deliberately recall the studied rebelliousness of, well, anyone on a rapidly growing list of celebrities who’ve been caught by the media with their pants literally down. Nick has won a contest in which he gets to have dinner with Jill, and he’s watching a fanboy-dominated “press” conference for her new film from his hotel room when a stranger calls him with incredible access to her private life, including direct and highly invasive routes to her laptop and cellphone.
To express the villain’s encroaching violation, as well the rootlessness that’s encouraged by ever-shifting, fictional online relationships, director Nacho Vigalondo has devised a big gimmick that’s initially quite resonant: As the title indicates, the film’s entirely told through open computer windows. The footage of the press conference that begins the film is revealed to be streaming on a website open on Nick’s computer, whom we only see through cameras recording footage that’s subsequently playing through the same device. When a mysterious bad guy involves Nick in an elaborate conspiracy centered on Jill, we simply see new windows open up on Nick’s computer from links the bad guy sends, which take us to people and locations that rapidly expand and collapse upon one another. These windows threaten to overwhelm us with stimulation, drawing us into the film in the supporting role of detective in a manner that mirrors the misleadingly “active” passiveness that’s reliably provided by life online. At its best, the film suggests a Mike Figgis cover of a Larry Cohen cover of a Brian De Palma cover of Rear Window.
But, like a lot of contemporary thriller directors, Vigalondo makes the mistake of believing that his plot actually matters. Disturbing scenes, such as the one that places us in the audience-implicating position of doling out punishment as Jill’s tormenter, give way to a series of endless twists (the most galling of which directly frees the audience of its responsibility in Jill’s plight) and car chases that force the film to adopt a freer and more derivative found-footage aesthetic so as to accommodate the rapid location changes. The evocative sparseness of the first act becomes a vague memory as more and more generic genre busy-ness is heaped onto the woodpile, and so a film that’s initially primed to parody the corrosive, self-entitled inhumanity, particularly the misogyny, of the World Wide Web becomes another parade of ostentatious shoot-’em-up effects. Timidity and perhaps fear, of visual confinement, of lingering emotional engagement, closes Vigalondo’s most promising windows.