A peculiar variation on the paranoid thriller and a virtual one-man show for Stephen Dorff, “Brake” deposits the viewer with a kidnapped man in the back of a car and lets the fur fly. Somewhat comparable to the underrated Ryan Reynolds-in-a-coffin thriller “Buried,” director Gabe Torres and writer Timothy Mannion contrive enough events and intrusions to avoid claustrophobic stasis, with Dorff solo onscreen for 99% of the running time. IFC will gain a trunkload of cash, mostly from VOD and ancillary.
Trouble has already begun for Secret Service agent Jeremy Reins (Dorff) in the opening frames, when he awakens to find himself in a transparent coffin, permitting a view of an LED clock ticking down from four minutes to zero. Immediately, this doesn’t look good, and Jeremy concludes he’s been kidnapped by an Atlantic City bookie to whom he owes a considerable gambling debt.
He’s soon disabused of this notion when the voice of a man named Henry (JR Bourne) emanates from a police radio receiver within Jeremy’s reach. Henry, it seems, is trapped under the same conditions as Jeremy, even looking at the same kind of ticking digital clock. As the timepiece ticks down from four minutes, only to reset itself and repeat the process again and again, conditions alter inside the coffin: Bright lights sometimes come on, or the sound of a car ignition is heard, making Jeremy realize he’s stuck in a car trunk.
A postcard with a picture of the White House and a portentous note on the back is passed to Jeremy through a tube connecting the trunk to the front of the car, where a driver and passenger vocally make demands of their captive. They also let him reach estranged wife Molly (Chyler Leigh), whom Jeremy hasn’t seen in three months; his urgent message to her is to reach fellow agent Ben (Tom Berenger) to secure the president of the United States.
By now, it’s apparent that what’s being served up is a terrorism thriller, albeit one that withholds any conventional visual information. As tension amps up and torture is introduced, including the release of a swarm of bees into the coffin, it’s also clear Jeremy won’t meet the terrorists’ demands, portending an almost certain grim denouement.
Lenser James Mathers’ digital cameras (using several setups for maximum coverage and variations of angle) simulates a vehicle in motion by rocking and rolling with production designer John Mott’s snug set, positioned on a set of gimbals. Because these angles remain almost purely within the trunk, there’s a heightened awareness of the craft involved, a factor that will either take auds out of the pic or add to the pleasures of watching a feat of physical filmmaking.
Mannion’s script goes a bit too far in terms of twists, capping the third-act suspense with a plot U-turn, and then another, that leaves audiences feeling played. Worse, the final development loses credibility in retrospect, reducing the film to the level of an exercise in paranoia, effects and one actor’s ability to hold attention for nearly 90 minutes.
“Brake” may not be the kind of film that Dorff’s thesp character in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” is pining for, but the actor fully commits to the arduous demands of the part. The rise and fall in Jeremy’s moods and emotions never feel as manipulated as the plot itself, so that a good deal of the pic’s impact derives less from auto mechanics than from Dorff. His supporting cast (generally offscreen and on the soundtrack) gives him something to play off, especially the always solid Pruitt Taylor Vince in double roles as a terrorist and a trucker.
Torres oversees an interesting sensory experience that rises in intensity, and he works effectively with editor Sam Restivo to cut among Mathers’ many camera positions for visual variation. Like “Buried,” “Brake” may become a technical object lesson in how to film in extremely tight spaces.