“Crisis Hotline” (2019) Indie Film Review

Erotic thriller with a shocking twist. Mark Schwab’s Crisis Hotline is an indie film that is reminiscent of Psycho IV, yet is budding with originality. It’s not often that we see fresh or original interpretations of past premises, but this film provides audiences with a new lens through which to explore heartbreak, guilt, and abuse of power. The small cast and two primary locations allow audiences to focus on the conflict between the crisis hotline operator and the caller. But down the rabbit hole the audience goes as the caller elaborates on why he is making a decision to harm himself and others. Despite the excellent hook provided by the opening scenes that setup the intriguing premise, the tone of the film shifts back and forth from heavy drama to psychological thriller to an erotic love story. Thus, leaving the film searching for what it wants to be. The screenwriting suggests that the writer was experimenting with genre, but didn’t commit to any one to a signifiant level, so there are tropes of all the aforementioned. What sets this film a part from many others that possess some of the same characteristics is that it features a predominantly gay male cast. What I appreciate about the characters is that their sexuality isn’t the focus of the story; truthfully, you could replace this cast with a heteronormative cast, and the story could play out similarly. However, the choice to make the characters gay does allow Schwab to explore relationship dynamics not often seen in films. While the premise may be intriguing, the execution lacks precision brought on by the underdeveloped plot and mostly flat characters.

A race-against-time thriller that highlights the potentially darkest sides of the social media phenomenon. Jaded by the job of managing an LGBT crisis line, Simon (Corey Jackson) finds that most of his callers are using the service for reasons that would qualify as being certainly less than a crisis. That all changes when he gets a call from Danny (Christian Gabriel) who says he is in the process of killing himself. Instantly gripped by his first real case, Simon does his best to connect with Danny and find out why he has come to consider such a drastic action. As the tale of Danny’s journey is unraveled through the use of flashback sequences, we discover a young romance, a troubling network of individuals, and a dark secret. (IMDb)

Although the characters are mostly flat, that doesn’t mean that they lack relatability. In fact, the characters of Simon and Danny are highly relatable. We’ve all been jaded over something in our lives. Maybe it’s failed relationships or perhaps it’s work related. Whatever the case, we’ve all been there. Simon goes into this shift with the same feelings that some of us may have experienced in our own jobs. Those in the service industry can definitely relate to that. Maybe you’re a Danny; you know what it’s like to be the new guy in town without a system of established friends and trying to date. Or you’ve been betrayed by someone you loved after having gone a long time just going through the motions of dating to the point you can provide an analytical breakdown of the steps, rises, and pitfalls. When Danny calls Simon to explain why he is intending to do himself and others harm, we can place ourselves in Danny’s shoes because perhaps we have been extremely heartbroken over a terminated relationship. He is our conduit through which we experience the plot of the film. He is a de facto narrator, and as such, because he is expressing suicidal and homicidal ideas, he is established as an unreliable narrator. But we have no choice but to listen to him because he must provide “the context” for Simon to process the severity of the call. Simon must establish the legitimacy of the call before contacting the authorities because there have been many false crisis claims in the past. In many ways, we are like Simon, listening to every word and trying to piece together the puzzle. There is no dramatic irony in this film, so we learn as Simon learns. The scenes of Simon listening to Danny are the scenes that I feel work best because that is when tension is at its highest.

Without getting into spoiler territory, I want to touch on how the film explores heartbreak, guilt, and abuse of power. Heartbreak is evident from the onset because the caller speaks to his broken relationship with Kyle. But when Simon suggests that the caller is going to extremes over a bad breakup, the caller draws Simon in closer to reveal the sordid, disturbing context of the broken relationship. Though Simon listens to a soft spoken Danny on the phone, it is clear that he is experiencing immense psychological pain. The heartbreak is more than sadness over a relationship that is over, it goes much deeper because of the sadistic betrayal that is slowly revealed over the phone call exposition. In addition to the exhibited heartbreak, the caller hints at the guilt he feels for some of his decisions, but the full extent of the guilt is not realized until the end of the film. I appreciate the film exploring not only the heartbreak of relationship loss, but the guilt parties feel in the aftermath. Lastly, the film comments on gross abuse of power. Through the conversation on the phone, Simon learns that Kyle’s employment may not be on the up and up, despite Kyle explaining to Danny that his employers were not involved in anything illegal–just sleazy. But Danny slowly begins to understand the degree to which Kyle’s employers hold him a captive employee. While the focus is on Danny and Simon, the film provides context for the audience to realize that the love of money is the root of all evil, and can reduce people to zeros and ones. Evaluating persons as a commodity is a dangerous slope that can lead to one’s destruction.

Thematically, the film works very well. The premise feels fresh, and the character setups are interesting. The weakness in this film falls on the screenplay that lacks direction. Although the plot is initially interesting and starts out gripping, it was stretched too thin to fill a 90min run time. Thankfully, the twist at the end helps to justify having sat through the poorly paced scenes. Not that this needed to be a quickly paced film; on the contrary, this is a story that needed to be a slow burn. But a slow burn does not mean that scenes should be poorly paced or longer than they need to be. Alfred Hitchcock stated, “start your scene as close to the end as possible.” And to Crisis Hotline’s credit, some scenes are tight and effective. But there are many that feel like they could have moved the plot along more efficiently. While I may be coming down hard on this film for it’s weak plot and lack of character development (when there was such an opportunity to explore these characters further), it provides audiences with a some great atmospheric scenes, a believable love story, and some rather suspenseful moments. I appreciate the film for not including explicit sex scenes, because then it’s entirely possible that it may have felt too close to a porno with a loose storyline. It has a good story idea with relatable characters and an intriguing premise.

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