Although technically polished and genuinely suspenseful, “Daylight” is a discomforting experience throughout much of its compact 75-minute running time, primarily because of surface similarities to recent torture-porn thrillers with comparable setups. Early scenes prime viewers to expect the worst, and helmer David Barker skillfully plays off that sense of dread. Overall lack of graphic violence and a satisfying payoff make the bitter pill surprisingly easy to swallow, but it’s likely that a plot synopsis will be enough to repel many potential ticketbuyers.
Transplanted Euros Danny (Aidan Redmond) and Irene (Alexandra Meierhans) make a wrong turn in the New England countryside while driving to a wedding, then compound their mistake by picking up a hitchhiker. One thing leads to another, and the couple winds up forcibly detained in a secluded house by the hitchhiker and two confederates.
To avoid being slaughtered, Danny frantically convinces his captors that Irene’s well-to-do father will pay handsomely for the couple’s safe return. So while brutish Murph (Brian Bickerstaff) drives Danny off to negotiate a ransom, the very pregnant Irene is left behind with Renny (Michael Godere) and Leo (Ivan Martin), unstable miscreants whose sudden mood swings keep their hostage, and the audience, in a constant state of unease.
Working from a script he co-wrote with Godere and Meierhans, Barker riffs on narrative conventions common to a subgenre that arguably can be traced back as far as “The Desperate Hours.” Cruel taunts, foiled escape attempts, sexually charged threats and fleeting interludes of near-bonding are just a few of the familiar items ticked off the checklist.
But thanks largely to the exceptional actors, particularly Martin and Meierhans, Barker sporadically infuses fresh life into stale cliches, and even makes a few of them truly compelling all over again. Midway through, there’s a gripping scene — cleverly echoed later in the pic — in which Leo searches for a knife Irene has slipped away from the dinner table, and then more or less dares her to stab him with it. It’s utterly shameless and undeniably effective. The same can be said about much else in “Daylight.”
A nice touch: Pic treats Irene’s religious beliefs with an irony-free seriousness that serves to make the anxious woman all the more sympathetic.
Some movie buffs will be amused to note slight but perceptible plot similarities between “Daylight” and, of all things, “The Tall T,” Budd Boetticher’s classic 1957 Western. To their credit, the filmmakers more or less acknowledge the influence in the closing credits.