Thrills and theatricality combine to intriguing effect in Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo’s Slow Machine. While it may seem oxymoronic to expect an ethereal indie to call itself a “thriller,” Felten’s script, DeNardo’s cinematography, and the duo’s direction successfully craft a well-paced, engaging experience out of a minimal plot and ultra-low-budget aesthetics. Perceptible from its first moments, Slow Machine sports a brisk pace, excellently detailed dialogue, and an earnest lead performance from experimental theatre actor Stephanie Hayes, elements which the directors combine into a confident remix of the 1970s-era big-city paranoia thriller.
Playing a paranoid New-York based Swedish actress also named Stephanie, Hayes is joined by Scott Shepherd (memorable as the sniveling Jeremiah Sand from Mandy) and a surprise appearance from Chloë Sevigny, apparently playing a lofty, defeatist version of herself. Shepherd plays Gerard, a mysterious, intermittently foreboding but oddly charming law enforcement agent of some kind, intentionally vague about his credentials, such that both Stephanie and the viewer begin to suspect him a phony. Told in non-linear fashion, Slow Machine bases its general narrative around how an intimate relationship between Stephanie and Gerard begins, sours, and ultimately ends in a mysterious calamity.
Filmed with dreamlike, mostly handheld 16mm visuals, the film flits between different stages in this process, including Stephanie’s desperate flight to live in the suburbs with über-artistic friends in the aftermath of the unspecified conflict. The non-linear editing creates some engrossing dynamics as the film progresses, such as certain moments where Stephanie’s paranoia is contrasted with a tender scene between her and Gerard prior to the negative events. What thrills there are to be had in the film are almost entirely due to Shepherd’s detailed and unpredictable performance as the opaque agent, whose amicability may conceal an exploitative, possibly dangerous secret intention.
Shepherd and Hayes perform well against each other in certain stretches of dialogue, in which Felten has embedded some solid turns of phrase and amusing oddities of conversation. When Gerard remarks on his girlfriend’s theories on pornography, or Stephanie questions Gerard’s views on national security, the script achieves a charming, rather theatrical rhythm in their back-and-forth. At one point, Gerard sullenly describes his genuine fear of terrorist threats, many of which he claims his agency has stopped from causing widespread catastrophe in the city and the nation — he suggests that we are too distracted by loud, sudden dangers and individual deaths to realize the more terrifying tragedy would come in the form of “a deliberately paced, collective perishing…” A chill of familiarity might run down the spine at that quip.
All that said, Slow Machine cannot sustain the charm, even for its lean 72-minute runtime. While its disarming coldness and winking use of montage are successful for its first few chapters, Felten and DeNardo do not stick the landing. The script resorts to an absurdly derivative explanation for the dissolution of Stephanie and Gerard’s relationship, followed by some dizzyingly meaningless developments and a prolonged denouement that mistakes opaque allusion with profundity. It’s very disappointing to watch what could have been a compelling reinterpretation of the low-budget suspense film, as well as a reinvigorating example of competent super-indie filmmaking, essentially turn into a big empty shrug before the credits roll.
The performers and ideas within Slow Machine deserve better, and though the portions of the film which do achieve a solid mix of theatricality and thrills are worth watching, the project as a whole proves a hard sell. Hopefully the next micro-budget attempt at something of this ilk sketches out a more solid ending and avoids such thin, uninspired pitfalls in plotting. Despite the foreboding atmosphere, brisk dialogue, and admirable intentions, by the end the gears of Slow Machine come grinding unceremoniously to a standstill.