Thursday, March 8, 2012

"ATM" has exciting hook but no payoff

ATM (2012)
90 min., rated R.

Of all the compact thrillers, how many more tight or inescapable spaces can movie characters get themselves stuck or stranded in? We've been in a phone booth, a box in the ground, a parking garage, a ski lift, an elevator, and the open water. Now, it's an ATM vestibule in "ATM." (Chandler on "Friends" found himself in a similar situation, but at least then he got stuck with model Jill Goodacre.) Making an exciting, 90-minute thrill machine out of a bare-bones premise—three people trapped in an ATM vestibule by a psycho—would be an admirable undertaking, but "ATM" has no follow-through. Fresh into the thriller pool, director David Brooks (who made a creepy 2009 short film called "Gone") works from a screenplay by Chris Sparling (2010's "Buried") but can't really make it work. 

Over the Christmas holiday at the Starkweather Financial firm, employee David (Brian Geraghty) wants to get one last chance with pretty Emily (Alice Eve) on her last day of work. So at the Christmas work party, he offers to take her home and she accepts, but boorish co-worker Cory (Josh Peck) becomes the third wheel. During the ride, Cory makes David stop to get food, but he has no cash so they have to stop at an ATM. Once all three of them are inside the vestibule and turn to leave, a faceless, menacing-looking man in a hooded parka stands a couple yards away on the outside of the glass. Instantly, they're a little freaked out, but wait for him to make a move, like killing a nearby dog walker. Before they know it, the psycho cuts off the heat in the enclosed room and keeps his whereabouts a mystery. What does he want? Can help come and not be bludgeoned to death? 

As ludicrous as it may sound, the setup is a clencher with a series of hairy situations to hang upon it. The dark, abandoned parking lot is creepily established, the cool-blue visual style is sharp, and the elusive stranger's parka attire reminds of the 1998 slasher "Urban Legend." It's too bad then that the script has the standards of TV schlock. The pre-ATM scenes between Geraghty and Eve are stiff and corny. When the parka-clad maniac first turns up outside of the glass partition, the three have very stupid exchanges, like "What does he want?," "Did he just walk here alone?," and "Where's his card?" Finally, one of them says, "How the hell should I know?" Also, why did the idiots park so far from the vestibule to begin with and leave one of their phones in the car and etc.? Oh that's right; there'd be no movie if characters didn't act this way. 

The characters are archetypal pawns, and on the acting end of things, the three leads are competent enough with what they're given. Geraghty is fine as the nice-guy hero, and Peck acquits himself well enough as the obligatory blowhard. Eve, as the lone female, is pretty, but pretty wobbly when it comes to expressing fear and disorientation. 

Because the payoff is so weak with an anticlimactic finale, this inherently tense situation merely ends up a hard-to-swallow gimmick. The fact that there's no resolution or reason for any of it just makes "ATM" that more contrived, frustrating, and unsatisfying. Many horror films have left us with open-ended conclusions before, most memorably 1974's "Black Christmas," but the sense of dread at least lingered even after that film ended. Here, the potential was there, but what's the point if there's no catharsis? 

Grade: C -

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