Taking their cue from a POTUS with a short fuse and no discernible filter, Americans at all points on the political spectrum seem to be in a particularly angry place at present. “Tilt” may be the first narrative feature out of the gate to make the Trump presidency a specific cause of its protagonist’s burning discontent (though he’s got others, too). This compelling psychological thriller finds that hero becoming increasingly antiheroic as various internal pressures prompt him to act out in random, eventually threatening ways. While some viewers attracted to the borderline-horror aspects of director Kasra Farahani’s sophomore feature may end up disappointed by its lack of graphic violence, others will appreciate the skill with which he makes us expect and dread just that.
“If you hate him so much, why are we always watching him?” Joanne (Alexia Rasmussen) asks husband Joe (Joseph Cross) as he snipes at yet another speech by Trump on the boob tube. It’s a question to which he has no good answer. At this point, the candidates are still stumping in advance of the election, and this 30-ish Los Angeles couple is preparing for bigger things, too: Nurse Joanne is newly pregnant with what will be their first child, while Joe has left a corporate editing job to work full-time at home on a second documentary feature. (His first was about pinball, and there’s a vintage game machine in their living room — hence the title.)
They’re just back from a vacation in Hawaii, but that relaxed idyll appears to have little lasting impact, at least on him. He begins experiencing strange phenomena — odd sights around the hood, odd sounds at home — as well as alarming nightmares. His ambivalence about their imminent status as parents begins to make itself felt, enough that she accuses him of being unenthusiastic and unsupportive. While she works long hours paying the bills, his project begins to look like a bottomless pit of obsession that only stokes his anger and paranoia. It’s meant to be about economic inequality in America, utilizing vintage library-film clips à la “Atomic Cafe” that are interspersed here. Yet the deeper Joe wades in, the more grandiose and vague it becomes, until it threatens to encompass any and all betrayals of American democratic ideals since World War II. If he ever finishes it, will the results be watchable? Will it make any money?
With these and other matters weighing on his mind, Joe starts going for long walks and drives, with no clear plan but a rumbling air of looking for trouble. In his poorly-lit, downscale neighborhood, he takes an ominous interest in three black men regularly seen hanging out on a corner, and in a homeless man camped on a pedestrian bridge. He seems to be looking for confrontation — even, perhaps for victims. There are hints that he may already have crossed the line into violence, in a Hawaii incident Joanne knows nothing about.
This is basically a portrait of developing psychosis, with Joe’s various issues of self-doubt and political anxiety gathering into a destructive, unstable force. Farahani (whose prior feature “The Good Neighbor” was another intriguing if less successful mix of social commentary and thriller elements) makes that deterioration palpable in the film’s immediately unsettling atmosphere. Strong contributions by DP Alexander Alexandrov, composer Lucas James Putnam and editor Kyle Traynor further heighten our sense of dislocation and conspiracy, immersing us in the protagonist’s slipping sanity while still leaving it somewhat mysterious. If the resolution feels a bit underwhelming, it’s perhaps because it’s less frightening than earlier sequences in which we expect the worst — notably Joe’s encounters with two complete strangers (Ron Marasco, Billy Khouri) whom he manages to terrorize without actually doing anything.
Cross is very good at nuancing the hidden depths of a character whose precise “problem” is purposefully kept elusive in Farahani and Jason O’Leary’s intelligent script. (He does, however, strike the one brief false note here: an a cappella version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” that’s meant to be creepy but just comes off as an actorly indulgence.) Rasmussen inevitably has less to do, but as the more grounded half of a seemingly average couple, she gets a fine late sequence talking to a friend (Jessy Hodges). It cannily reels our perspective back to rock-solid reality just before Joe completely snaps tether, heightening the tragedy Joanne doesn’t know she’s already neck-deep in.