The fear of subliminal messages hidden in the media we consume seems to be less common than it used to be. Maybe that’s because, lately, the stuff that’s put out there right in plain view is so nakedly manipulative and inflammatory that any subconscious attempts at mind control would just be redundant.

Still, the idea is admittedly a scary one. Consider it: you’re just sitting there, say, reading an ordinary movie review on the internet, and all of a sudden, you’re hit with some hypnotic trigger that compels you to cluck like a chicken or, perhaps, send fifty bucks to the author of said movie review.

That particular threat is what drives the thriller Distorted, which seeks to resurrect our largely forgotten concerns about subliminal messaging for the modern era. The film mixes psychological suspense in the early Polanski vein with a strong dose of Black Mirror-ish paranoid technophobia, but while the ideas are definitely intriguing, they never cohere into a compelling or truly thought-provoking whole.

One thing that Distorted has going for it is Christina Ricci, a welcome presence in her first feature-film starring role in quite some time. She plays Lauren, an artist who suffers from both manic depression and a crippling anxiety related to a traumatic death in her recent past. Seeking a fresh start, her husband Russell (Brendan Fletcher) convinces her to move into a state-of-the-art luxury apartment complex called The Pinnacle, which he assures her will provide just the “security and serenity” that she needs. The sleekly modern, technologically advanced place touts not only its lavish amenities but also its top-of-the-line “smart” features, with an emphasis on 24/7 monitoring of its residences – and residents – for any sign of trouble. It’s the perfect place for the young, affluent couple to safely hole up and get their marriage and careers back on track.

“…also its top-of-the-line ‘smart’ features, with an emphasis on 24/7 monitoring of its residences – and residents – for any sign of trouble…”

Almost immediately, though, things start to get weird and ominous for Lauren, though she never can be quite sure whether it’s her own addled mental state that’s to blame. Any strangeness or potential danger is mostly intangible at first: Lauren thinks she glimpses some unintelligible words flashing on the TV, there are weird encounters with a supposedly genius tech-millionaire neighbor (Scott Olynek), and everybody in the place creepily seems have the same tune stuck in their heads (it’s the old chestnut “Beautiful Dreamer,” which can indeed be pretty terrifying when hummed by an intense-looking middle-aged man while he’s pumping iron at the gym).

These sequences are among Distorted‘s most effective, as director Rob King contrasts the ritzy sleekness of film’s setting with a smattering of off-balance compositions that suggest something not quite right just out of view. The sound design contributes to the unnerving atmosphere, as well (the “whoosh” of a cappuccino machine has never sounded as menacing as it does in this movie), and for a while, it’s engaging enough to play along with the film’s is-she-imagining-things-or-isn’t-she conceit.

Before long, though, Lauren’s investigations lead her to suspect that someone sinister is experimenting on the building’s residents, subjecting them to subliminal visual and auditory messages channeled through the building’s cable television and from hidden speakers in her apartment. This leads her to Vernon (John Cusack), a reclusive hacker/journalist/conspiracy theorist who agrees to help her get to the bottom of what’s going on.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the film’s conventional thriller plotting really starts to make itself noticeable, and along with it the middling suspense and perfunctory dialogue that are unlikely to grab viewers in any significant way. Distorted feels oddly safe and doesn’t offer any real jolts aside from one quick flash of graphic gore and the occasional Clockwork Orange-style montage of violent subliminal imagery; worse, it raises a lot of interesting and potentially relevant ideas without really exploring them beyond the most surface level.

“…contrasts the ritzy sleekness of film’s setting with a smattering of off-balance compositions that suggest something not quite right…”

Arne Olsen’s screenplay lurches back-and-forth from mildly to wildly implausible – this is a movie in which a character can essentially stroll right into the nerve center of an amazingly advanced security/surveillance facility, which doesn’t appear to have any security cameras of its own – and potentially interesting set-ups are rarely paid off. One of the most troubling things we learn about The Pinnacle, for example, is that every resident can remotely monitor their neighbors in the building’s common areas – the corridors, the fitness center, the parking garage, etc. – at any time, but the sleazy, voyeuristic implications of this invasive technology are largely ignored, and it’s only really established in order to set up a mild jump scare later on.

Ricci, at least, makes for a sympathetic protagonist; she’s extremely expressive in getting across the fortitude and drive that go along with her character’s fragility, and her screen presence is powerful enough that Lauren never comes off as simply passive or put-upon. Cusack’s role is fairly small, but he does provide some spark when he appears, cocooned in a black hoodie and sullenly spouting off conspiracy lingo and technobabble like a particularly morose associate of The X-FilesLone Gunmen. The pair’s scenes together feel very much like the work of two talented old pros who’ve maybe been around the B-movie block a few times too many.

All told, Distorted doesn’t entirely waste but also doesn’t do much justice to a premise that, in the right hands, could have elicited more thrills, more relevance, or, at least, more obvious interest in its own ideas. There’s a smarter, scarier, more subversive film to be made about this subject, and for a movie that’s so concerned with the horror of planting lingering messages into unsuspecting victims’ heads, it’s unlikely to leave much of a lasting impression on viewers at all.

Distorted (2018) Directed by Rob King. Written by Arne Olsen. Starring Christina Ricci, Brendan Fletcher, John Cusack, Vicellous Shannon, Nicole Anthony, Oliver Rice, Scott Olynek, Gigi Jackman, Sophia Daly

5 out of 10

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