Released this week in a somewhat Soderberghian manner (with simultaneous theatrical, DVD, and online distribution), Rage interweaves 14 fractured blue-screen monologues from an impressive farrago of independent film actors and lesser-known stage names to insinuate a peripheral tale of fashion-world brutality. Off screen there’s a runway show that dissolves into pandemonium when one of models is killed in an Isadora Duncan-esque freak accident involving a motorcycle prop and an errant scarf; two days later another model is shot to death while strutting for her brand. In the film’s primary dramatic premise, a cavalcade of industry characters—designers, models, press reps, wannabes, and has-beens—deconstruct their memories and thoughts on the horrific events before the minuscule iris of a cellphone camera operated by local student Michelangelo, whom we never see or hear.
Despite provoking crippling skepticism (why would the fashion elite speak with such candor to a student? How could a cellphone produce such high-resolution images?), it’s an intriguing if not altogether successful approach, and one that could easily yield more satisfying results from other filmmakers (one might hope this event has the attention of Todd Solondz or Rodrigo García). The sketch-like focus on dialogue and characterization, as opposed to plot or mise-en-scène, is clearly the most logical direction for the burgeoning online/mobile entertainment movement, where grandiose visual concepts are dwarfed into 3.5 horizontal inches and uninspired set pieces are scrubbed ahead with the flick of a pinky. The advantage of Rage is its stylistic redundancy and still-life portraiture feel; one could pause the film at any time to check their email and return without having severed the narrative flow. The disadvantage is that the movie’s serenely glabrous surface lacks dynamism: Aside from the colored backgrounds that match each respective character’s eyes, garments, and/or hair, there are no visual indicators of plot development or tension, which lends itself to 98 minutes of occasionally soporific sameness.
If the performances were more accomplished, or if the murder mystery storyline were less marginal, or if—the simplest fix—the film were simply shorter, we might not feel as weary about spending time with these fashion insiders. But writer-director Sally Potter seems curiously entertained by the most pedestrian performances—Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench, playing a deftly wicked entrepreneur and a blustering art critic, command their chroma-keyed stages with seasoned complexity, but they’re given a paucity of screen time compared to Steve Buscemi’s underwhelming mercantilist photographer and Jude Law’s embarrassing narcissistic transvestite. (David Oyelowo’s Hamlet-spouting detective is beneath antipathy.) And while the stark visual formalism of the experiment is ideal for shrunken PDA and laptop screens, the monochromatic backgrounds and crystalline digital sheen seem borrowed from online commercials. Mute the sound, and you’ve got an adequately produced Apple ad.