FILM REVIEW: Broken Vows

The American Independent scene is a far-cry from the soaring heights of the early 90’s, and the strong resurgence of the mid-noughties. It has been some time since we had a Dazed and Confused, or even a Napoleon Dynamite. It’s now mostly a landscape littered with political liberal pieces that – in their desperate attempts to appear progressive and poignant – often forget to achieve the basic task of being a watchable film. Broken Vows – the cinematic directorial debut of Bram Coppens – had potential to be an independent sleeper-hit. One glance at the cast list shows a surprising amount of star-power on show for a project as potentially risky as a debut.

Bentley, Alexander and Gidanet have all had relatively large roles to play in large mainstream movies; while not A-Listers, they certainly float around at a higher level of fame that one might expect for such a film. Unfortunately, with the writing duet that brought us such cinematic faeces as Rage – and the laughably terrible Dario Agento tribute, Giallo – behind the film, it would take a monumental effort from Coppens to present us with something even remotely impressive; possibly the worst-case scenario for a directorial debut, akin to attempting a high-jump with your ankles bound. The premise is actually pretty decent; Tara – the protagonist – spends a drunken night with Patrick, mere weeks before her wedding. Patrick develops an unhealthy obsession, and begins to stalk her, while Tara attempts to keep the secret from her partner, Michael.

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This leaves a large amount of room to cover in terms of thematic scope, with many probing questions a talented writer could ask, explore, and potentially even answer. Is it better in this instance to be honest and upfront with her partner, and to accept the ramifications of her actions? Is she already suffering the ramifications of her actions, and consequently has no need to tell him? Knowing what we later discover, is she even a good person? If the stalker has serious mental health issues, can he even be held responsible for his actions? Plenty of deep, philosophical ground the film could cover – or, at the very least, some form of thematic contest for an audience to digest. What we get is effectively none of this, as these are all brushed under the table, at times very lightly covered, and almost entirely ignored for the film’s duration. Leaving us disengaged, indifferent and, the worst possible crime a film can commit, terribly bored.

Now you may be asking yourself a very reasonable question; does the film need to follow themes to be entertaining? Can a film not merely be a story with no real desire to explore anything deep and meaningful? The answer – of course – is yes, it can. However; the history of human narrative storytelling was – quite literally – built on a bedrock of themes. From the ancient Egyptians to the Greek theatres; all narratives were built upon these themes. In fact, one could argue that was the entire purpose of storytelling – to explore themes. Consequently – as far as I’m concerned – failing to do so means your art fails at the most primitive and basic level. It also leads to one really terrible scenario; the protagonist is unlikeable, disinteresting, and – to be frank – a pretty terrible person. She conceals her infidelity from her fiance even at the point where it is directly threatening her very life. This leads us to ask why? Was her desire to remain good in his eyes more important than death? Or did she simply not believe he was worthy of telling? It’s a really awkward issue that causes major, major narrative problems. If you’re going to base the dramatic tension of your film around a protagonist being stalked, you simply have to make her a likeable figure. Otherwise the audience doesn’t care, and all emotional tension is lost.

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Now, to defend the film somewhat, it’s worth mentioning that the actors come out of this with some credit. They try their hardest – working against an incredibly lifeless script – to make something work. Bentley does pretty much the best he possibly could with what he has to work with. He is clearly a talented actor who perhaps needs a better agent to keep him away from films like this. Alexander also does relatively well, but again, she is hamstrung by playing a lifeless, boring character. There’s no depth to the character; no hidden layers to explore, she merely exists, an unlikeable and boring person. The fiance – played by Gidanet – is a terrible, terrible character, and unfortunately the actor is not strong enough to save it.

That’s another of the film’s problems; there are no characters who are believable or real, merely caricatures going through the motions. We’ve got the bland, boring protagonist. We have the dopey fiancé who can’t seem to figure out even the most basic of plot points. We have the ‘creepy stalker’ who – despite being the most interesting character in the film – is someone we’ve seen before in cinema, time and time again. He is particularly problematic; as he suffers from heavy hallucinations in which The Protagonist encourages his sexual advances. Now, assuming that he is unable to differentiate between reality and his own delusions; that raises a very interesting question. Can he really be held accountable for his actions if he is that mentally ill?

Of course, the film doesn’t even bother to approach this, even stating – and I’m quoting a character, who was a doctor, verbatim – ‘He’s one sick fuck.’ That line should tell you everything you need to know about the film’s terrible handling of this potentially intriguing question. Simply put; the crazy guy is crazy, but nevertheless the film treats him as evil. An example of this theme being explored properly would be Maniac (the recent remake, not the original, though I highly advise you to watch both.) There, mental illness is carefully and expertly treated; leaving us with a truly effecting and disturbing experience. You sympathise with the character – despite his horrific actions – and are left with many lingering questions about the nature of evil and mental illness. Here, no such exploration is undertaken; either because the writers were too lazy to bother, or – as is more likely – they simply lack the talent. And the less said about the protagonist’s younger sister, the better. She is awfully written and painfully poorly acted; a complete waste of screen-time used for no other reason than to manufacture tension, as what feels like a 60-page screenplay stretched out to 90 minutes.

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This – by the way – is painfully apparent throughout the film, and one of my major gripes. Now, I have no problem with long, sustained shots; in fact, for me, that’s what really gets me going in cinema. Broken Vows, however, decides to add not lengthy sustained shots, but completely unnecessary ones. A prime example is a scene where the protagonist takes an elevator; it lasts over a minute and cuts four times. Why? There is absolutely no need for this; it’s merely an editor or director trying their best to elongate what is a relatively brisk story. It’s also an example of a director/DOP combination who wanted to appear artistic, yet don’t really understand the composition of cinema. Just throwing in a dutch-angle shot of an elevator is NOT art. It’s just mindless self-indulgence, designed for no other reason than to hide your filler as artistic expression. It fails utterly. Now, I may have sounded somewhat cruel towards the film, so it’s worth mentioning it isn’t absolutely terrible. Far from being a complete train-wreck, it’s actually a relatively competently made film that features decent performances and ambitious – if misguided – cinematography, and most casual film-goers would probably find it relatively enjoyable. As a directorial debut, it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen. He clearly has an eye for a good shot; just needs to understand cinematic composition a little better; as the film is an atmospheric vacuum, devoid of much – if any – tension. The acting isn’t bad, nor is it particularly great. Which is a fair summary for the film itself; it isn’t terrible, it isn’t great. It just merely exists as something that happened without much consequence.

2 OUT OF 5

Review by Joshua Moulinie

Director – Bram Coppens
Writer(s) – Jim Agnew, Sean Keller
Starring – Wes Bentley, Jaimie Alexander, Cam Gidanet
Bram Coppens

Broken Vows is available to watch on Digital Download from 6th November 

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