When a family in a film is into stuff that is either legally or morally objectionable, it usually involves drugs, murder, money laundering, or incest. The family in “The Cliffhanger” has a secret, one that took a total of twenty-nine minds to create. “The Cliffhanger” was made by an artistic collective consisting of eleven Chicago directors and eighteen Chicago actors. Each director could shoot their chapter any way they wanted to as long as they continued with the storyline and the actors played the same characters. The filmmakers and actors refer to this project as “improv motion picture collaboration,” but should you ever come across this film playing in your local art-house theatre, you may prefer to call it an idea that sounds better on paper than on screen.
The film is essentially about a group of people who want a young thug named Darius (Joel Paul Reisig) dead. Most of the characters are introduced in the first few chapters of the film and as “The Cliffhanger” progresses, the relationships between the characters are established. For example, Nellie (Annie Sisson) wants Darius dead because she’s convinced he killed her step-father Cliff (Matthew Penn). Darius’s brother Anthony (Jesse Menendez) watches the contents of a couple of VHS tapes and gets himself into trouble because of who and what is on those tapes. A guy named Charlie (Michael Stailey) knows all the characters and runs a very shady business.
Categorically speaking, “The Cliffhanger” could be a suspense-thriller. The problem with this film is that it doesn’t allow the viewer to suspect anything. Each of the eleven chapters is helmed by a different director. Rather than enrich any relationship between the spectator and the events on the screen, the directors are more concerned with furthering plot and setting up questions that the next filmmaker has to answer. In this kind of film, it’s up to the directors to keep track of how the characters are connected and what they’ve done and whom those actions affect. The directors have to do so in order to make their portion of the film. Consequently, there’s not much for the viewer to guess or speculate about in terms of who the characters are and what they’ve done. To understand the film’s story, you must piece together what the various chapters reveal about the characters, but the level of viewer participation doesn’t intensify.
Literary works and theatrical pieces can benefit from improvisational group efforts, where more than one “author” is responsible for guiding the storytelling, but it just doesn’t quite work the same way in film. “The Cliffhanger” will leave you neither shocked nor entertained. When the dirty family secret is unveiled, you may hear yourself think “ew,” but that’s all.