Film Review: ‘11 Minutes’

Jerzy Skolimowski's multi-stranded thriller is technically zippy and suitably stressful, but decidedly short on reasons to care.

'11 Minutes' Review: Skolimowski Turns In a Slick Nihilistic Thriller
Courtesy of Hanway Films

There’s a lot of life but a comparative dearth of humanity in “11 Minutes,” a buzzing, hurtling, too-fast-to-think thriller that scarcely makes sense of one of its numerous cross-woven mini-narratives. Antically jumping, rewinding and shifting perspectives across a tight (but not 11-minute) timeframe as a cross-section of Warsaw residents witness the chaotic prelude to a calamity, this unexpectedly trend-conscious return for veteran Polish auteur Jerzy Skolimowski will earn him some slightly patronizing plaudits for its sheer caffeinated drive — as if skilled 77-year-old filmmakers are expected to set all their work at a walking pace. But while “11 Minutes” gives his technique a brisk workout, it’s minor-to-sloppy on a conceptual and narrative basis, shot through with underbaked script threads — some of them raw dough, frankly — passed off as experimental snapshots. The pic’s surface flash, however, may dazzle up some European distributor interest. 

Anyone who saw Skolimowski’s last feature, 2010’s Vincent Gallo-starring survival thriller “Essential Killing,” shouldn’t be surprised by the formal itchiness on display here — though that pic’s rigorous pulse was tied to undeniably immediate human stakes. “11 Minutes” is a more evasive, elliptical affair all round, which limits its international arthouse prospects despite a decidedly commercial sheen. After all, multi-stranded, clock-watching genre pieces hinging on simple twists of fate aren’t the relative novelty they once were. Skolimowski’s planned solution to the derivative form of his script is to forgo storytelling arcs and unifying themes entirely, gaining momentum from his characters’ constant collective movement rather than the explication and accumulation of personal objectives and obstacles.

It’s a bold strategy that would perhaps be more effective in a film with either an avant-garde or starkly realist sensibility. Given how much of “11 Minutes” takes place in the glibly heightened realm of the Hollywood-molded actioner, its various fragments are rather short on intrigue, whether considered alone or in simmering context. Skolimowski also, rather curiously, ducks out on what would appear to be the pic’s defining gimmick. While it seems at the outset that all the film’s action will be contained, from multiple vantage points, within a single 11-minute period, the helmer flouts that restriction as matters unfold in a wider radius of activity. Per press notes, Skolimowski changed tack in the writing process, preferring to view the 11-minute window as a “metaphor,” perhaps of our enslavement to time’s passage in the first place. A filmmaker is, of course, free to break any self-imposed rules he wishes, though it’s hard not to view this as an avoidable cop-out.

A pre-credit prologue, dubbed a “cyber cemetery” by the helmer, sets the tone of panicked confusion from the off. Using only scrappy, everyday-access means of filming — a webcam, a smartphone, a CCTV camera — Skolimowski introduces his raggedly stressed assembly of subjects in the midst of disparate personal crises that we can’t yet decipher. Auds may expect the ensuing film to catch up to these story glimmers in due course, though that won’t be the case for all of them. The more enduring implication of this intro is that we’re all, by dint of modern technology and surveillance, stars of film narratives — whether of our own making or otherwise — on a daily basis.

The strand that emerges most dominant is among its least superficially compelling, as a human oil-slick of an American filmmaker (Irish thesp Richard Dormer, rather overdoing it) invites a nervous ingenue actress (Paulina Chapko) to his luxury hotel suite for an audition. Coy casting-couch insinuations abound, while her suspicious, newly acquired husband and manager (Wojciech Mecwaldowski), bearing a fresh facial wound, stalks the building in search of the right room.

Skolimowski checks in repeatedly on the potential love triangle’s progress over the film’s brief duration, splicing in shards of even less scrutable incidents. A hangdog hot dog vendor with a suggested history of pedophilia (Andrzej Chyra) awaits a lift from a young drug courier (Dawid Ogrodnik), while the latter flees a tryst with a wealthy married woman. One of the vendor’s customers (Ifi Ude, the ensemble’s most interesting presence even with scarce material) licks her wounds after an acrimonious breakup. An on-edge paramedic team overcomes a hysterical diversion to reach a woman in labor (Grazyna Blecka-Kolska) and an ailing man (Janusz Chabior), while across town, a callow teen (Lukasz Sikora) is caught up in a failed heist. And so the threads multiply — raising many questions, if not much equivalent interest in seeing them answered — ahead of a punchier, more extravagantly cartoonish climax that layers peril upon peril.

It’s the technical bravado of the enterprise, rather, that sustains our attention. After the scuzzy camera sources of the prologue, the film expands into a sleek widescreen aesthetic. Sound design is impressively oppressive, making strong use of passing-yet-pounding incidental noise — in particular, a low-flying plane that repeatedly resonates as a doom-laden leitmotif. All metallic textures and vertiginous under-and-over movement, Mikolaj Lebkowski’s lensing is not especially innovative, but is athletically fit for purpose. Editor Agnieszka Glinska keeps things barreling forward in kinetically distracted fashion, but can’t tease out a great sense of purpose in the whirl — which is how her director appears to want it in this fizzy but flagrantly nihilistic exercise.

Film Review: ‘11 Minutes’

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 9, 2015. (Also in Toronto, London film festivals.) Running time: <strong>81 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Poland-Ireland) A Skopia Film, Element Pictures production in co-production with HBO Europe, Orange Polska S.A., TVP S.A., Fundacja Tumult. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Produced by Ewa Piaskowska, Jerzy Skolimowski. Executive producers, Jeremy Thomas, Andrew Lowe, Ed Guiney, Eileen Tasca, Marek Zydowicz.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Jerzy Skolimowski. Camera (color, widescreen, Arri Alexa), Mikolaj Lebkowski; editor, Agnieszka Glinska; music, Pawel Mykietin; production designers, Joanna Kaczynska, Wojciech Zogala; set decorator, Kate McColgan; costume designer, Kalina Lach; sound (Dolby Digital), Alan Scully; supervising sound editor, Radoslaw Ochnio; re-recording mixer, Ken Galvin; visual effects supervisor, Robert Hoffmeister; visual effects, Alvernia Studios, Platige Image; stunt coordinators, Tomasz Krzemieniecki, Donal O'Farrell; assistant director, Luke Johnston; casting, Pawel Czajor.
  • With: Richard Dormer, Wojciech Mecwaldowski, Paulina Chapko, Andrzej Chyra, Dawid Ogrodnik, Agata Buzek, Piotr Glowacki, Anna Maria Buczek, Jan Nowicki, Lukasz Sikora, Ifi Ude, Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, Grazyna Blecka-Kolska, Janusz Chabior. (Polish, English dialogue)