Judge Gordon Sullivan's life is usually told in flashbacks.
Out of options. Out of control. Out of time.
The multi-stranded narrative has been with cinema since its early days. Even D.W. Griffith tried to make a point about intolerance by contrasting historical examples in his film Intolerance back in 1916. However, it seems that the twenty-first century has preferred to use the technique not to contrast, but to explain problems. Films like Crash and 21 Grams use their multifaceted narratives to create webs that trap characters, sealing their fates through bad choices. We as the audience watch these traps close in on characters and have the opportunity to reflect on the choices that brought them there. It's not my favorite kind of movie, but it does serve an interesting social function. 96 Minutes attempts to mine the same territory, but it's tale of bad choices and extreme consequences can't overcome some narrative problems and truly sink in.
Four characters are in a car; the two in the back belong with the car, while the two in the front are in the process of stealing it from them. Through flashbacks we see the choices that led these four to their fate.
Very early on in 96 Minutes, it is clear that a carjacking is underway and that the film will be a series of flashbacks that in some way explain how the carjacking came to be. At this point, audiences are primed to read the film as an explanation of the carjacking from the perspective of the four people involved. 96 Minutes then has two choices: to provide a series of unexpected, perhaps coincidental actions that lead to the carjacking, or to present a series of characters who must inevitably find themselves in the violent situation.
96 Minutes opts for the latter, to its detriment. It's not that diagnosing social ills and showing how carjackings are somehow inevitable occurrences in our violent culture is necessarily a bad thing. It isn't. However, relying on cheap stereotypes to drive a conventional thriller plot and hoping that it will all be smoothed over by a jumpy narrative is a bad thing. Our four main characters are walking stereotypes. Kevin is the ill-tempered young man who gets things rolling. He comes from a violent household and is immersed in violent video games. He hopes that by pulling off the carjacking he'll impress the kids in the local gang. Dre is his compatriot; he's the ghetto kid trying to make a better life for himself who gets inevitably sucked back into a life of crime. The pair's victims include Carley, a somewhat listless law student who finds herself arguing about capital punishment before being involved in an extreme situation, and her friend Lena, a depressed and disaffected college student.
The only way that 96 Minutes can hope to work, at least on paper, is if we have at least a certain amount of sympathy for all the characters. For everyone but Kevin, that's true. Dre is trying to go to college, Carley has aspirations, and even Lena is understandably depressed after breaking up with her cheating boyfriend. Kevin, however, is unrelentingly unsympathetic from the get-go. I assume we're supposed to feel for him because his family abuses him and he seeks refuge in videogames and gangs. However, he's so stupid and id-driven that it's easy to imagine him turning out this bad with a perfect family life. Without sympathy for Kevin, 96 Minutes becomes completely unbalanced. Very early on I wanted Dre to just shoot Kevin and take the women to a police station. With that desire in my mind, it was really hard to watch the car drive around as the characters prevaricate about what to do. It's not like 96 Minutes offers a satisfying conclusion to the nonsense either.
96 Minutes does however look good on DVD. The dark, shaky-cam aesthetic is rendered effectively in this 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Black levels are consistent and deep, detail is fairly strong, and colors are muted but well-saturated. The 5.1 surround mix is pretty solid as well. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, and the surrounds get a bit of use during some of the more tense scenes in the car. Director Aimee Lagos and actor David Oyelowo sit down for a commentary in the disc's only extra. The pair is chatty the whole way through, talking about the making of the film and spending a lot of time dissecting character motivations. I have a bit more of an appreciation for the film's characters after listening to this track, but it still doesn't help overcome the problems with Kevin's character.
96 Minutes doesn't quite work, either as a social drama or as a thriller. Though it offers some solid performances, overall it feels just a bit too stereotypical to be truly effective. However, it does point the way towards future greatness for director Aimee Lagos, and the film might be worth a rental to those looking for a socially conscious thriller.
Not great, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arc Entertainment
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