There isn't much action in the first half of "Catfish," which is being billed as a documentary by directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. The camera focuses firmly on Ariel's brother, Nev Schulman, a New York-based dance photographer, as he spends his days in the same way that many of us do, on the computer. When not on the computer, he's on the phone. It all might sound a bit lethargic, but the stillness lends itself to an admirable level of tension.
Just how exactly that tension will break is the unknown the filmmakers are hoping will draw an audience. They're not being subtle about it. The trailer, which compares the film to Alfred Hitchcock, warns, as the filmmakers approach a spooky farmhouse, that "the final forty minutes ... will take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride that you won't be able to shake for weeks." How can any reasonable person not hang around for the second act, which will surely result in a deluge of Eli Roth-level terror?
The film begins with Nev (pronounced Neeve), Ariel and Henry (for directors, they have an awfully large role in the film) safe at home in New York City. Out of the blue, Nev receives a painting of one of his photographs in the mail. The artist claims to be an 8-year-old girl, Abby. Nev becomes Facebook friends with Abby's mother and older sister, and eventually begins speaking to them on the phone. Nev jumps into the relationship with an understandable level of curiosity, and things are innocent enough until he discovers that one of his cyber pen pals is being dishonest.
In true horror movie fashion, the three friends decide to confront the family at their home in Michigan. If you're champing at the bit over the prospect of a real-life "Hostel," look elsewhere (or maybe talk to a professional). The "emotional roller coaster" is closer to Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Though there are certainly some anxiety-inducing moments, as the story unfolds it's more strange than thrilling. "Catfish" isn't a horror movie. It's not even close, despite the bloody fish and spooky farmhouse.
It is, however, an interesting examination of the darker side of the world of communication enabled by social media, one that's bound to fuel the animosity and anxiety many feel toward companies such as Facebook and Google over control of personal information. Nev's failure to perform even a basic search to check whether the person he was talking to was actually who they claimed to be taps into a common fear, one that is reinforced by the constant barrage of ads for products claiming to protect us from identity theft and similar crimes.
It's a fear that is hard to avoid, however, as so much of how we live is now online.
Appropriately, Facebook and Google factor heavily into the film's visuals, advancing the narrative as if there is someone behind a curtain pushing the young men forward. The technique starts to wear thin as the movie progresses, but it is still effective in helping to convey the idea that we function in a sort of real-life "Matrix."
Ultimately, the film suggests that the reality of our lives within this online world is more sad than dangerous, that there is still something very human about the experience. Nev's naivete also makes a point that it's not just innocent teenage girls who can be victimized on the Web, and that it's not just psycho killers who are on the other end.
The question of just who is on the other end of "Catfish," however, makes us wonder if we are being duped as well. A lot of the film seems too good to be true, and the focus on deceit would lend itself well to a "Blair Witch"-style piece of meta-marketing. The filmmakers claim that this isn't the case, but that hasn't prevented a spirited argument over the veracity of the film from developing online. The fact that people do not want to believe the story is telling of just how suspicious we've become, but whether or not it's true, the end result of the film remains fundamentally the same. It gets us talking about how we communicate.
In that sense, "Catfish" succeeds. It suggests that if we wade through a lot of the gunk on the surface of what social media has to offer, there is potential for a more authentic experience.
Our grade: B+
Running Time: 88 min
MPAA rating: PG-13
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