An intense and skillfully realized debut, 'If There's a Hell Below' is one impressive thriller.
If There’s a Hell Below (Slamdance Review)
In the empty landscapes of rural Washington, a meeting is about to go down between two people: Abe (Conner Marx), a young journalist trying to make a name for himself, and Debra (Carol Roscoe), who works for the US government. Their meeting is the result of a series of back and forth communications, with Debra wanting to release sensitive information involving national security. From the moment they meet in person, the word “trust” gets thrown around more than once. For Abe, it’s making sure Debra’s a legitimate source while trying to stop her from being spooked so easily; for Debra, it’s a matter of not getting caught handing out classified information. They may be surrounded by vast flatlands, but their location exposes them just as much as it exposes anyone who might be watching them. Over the next hour and a half (shown almost entirely in real-time), Abe and Debra will try to trust each other in order to get what they want. On the other hand, viewers can place their full trust in writer/director Nathan Williams’ hands. If There’s a Hell Below is the kind of back to basics take on a conspiracy thriller that feels refreshing and riveting at the same time, with a confidence behind the camera that establishes a new name brimming with potential. Here’s a film where the word “Hitchcockian” is not just apt; it’s earned.
For its slim runtime, Williams goes against expectations by making as much empty space as possible. When it comes to story, it’s not about the specifics of why Abe and Debra get together. Her specific role in the government is never expanded on beyond a meaningless job title, and the information she has for Abe doesn’t get explained or broken down (all she has is a list of names on a flash drive). Williams’ deliberate avoidance of specifics helps make the situation easier to get pulled into, as it gives him the ability to hone in on the dramatic core: two people entering a possibly life or death situation, with no way of knowing they’re safe until they’re unsafe. Williams’ set-up doesn’t provide any evidence of Abe or Debra being who they say they are, and no knowledge of whether or not they’re being watched. They meet in the open countryside with no one else around them, but they act like they’re in an enclosed space with eyes all around them.
Initially, Abe and Debra’s characterizations come across as a little too familiar, with Abe’s ignorant cockiness making him look less like an opportunistic journalist and more like a victim in the first act of a slasher movie. But like everything else in Williams’ film, it’s a deliberate move. Abe turns out to be a small-time reporter desperately looking for a big break, and his behaviour comes from not realizing the stakes of the situation. Early on, when Debra gets scared once she sees a parked SUV in the distance, Abe decides to drive right up to the vehicle to show her she has nothing to worry about. It’s an annoying sequence until Williams throws in a nice punchline, one that’s predictable but pulled off with such aplomb it’s hard not to crack a smile.
The assured direction extends out to the film’s look, an aspect that’s vital to why If There’s a Hell Below works so effectively. Taking full advantage of the spacious locations, Williams and cinematographer Christopher Messina create one painterly image after another, at times evoking Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World but with a more sinister edge. It’s an impressive control over mood and atmosphere that heightens the intensity, especially in the latter half when the film closes on a terrific, wordless epilogue, a mini-narrative that drops just enough information for viewers to piece everything together. It’s that kind of cool, confident filmmaking that makes If There’s a Hell Below a highly entertaining shock to the system, a thriller that shows how a skillful hand can make all the difference between a good film and a great one.