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).