Slamdance 2016 Review: IF THERE'S A HELL BELOW Offers Prime Post-Snowden Intrigue

U.S. Editor; Los Angeles, California (@benumstead)
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Slamdance 2016 Review: IF THERE'S A HELL BELOW Offers Prime Post-Snowden Intrigue
Nathan Williams' debut feature steps onto the independent film stage with the calm, steady aim of a confident marksman ready to make the shot. A meticulously crafted tale of government secrets and whistle blowers in a post Edward Snowden world, If There's A Hell Below suffers in one department only, in that its title is a little too broad in its foreboding to truly clue you into the political and existential intrigue that unfolds over the course of this DIY gem.

Conner Marx stars as Abe, an upstart journalist at a small Chicago weekly who is contacted by Debra (Carol Roscoe), a supposed national security specialist with some major secrets to spill. They rendezvous in the great eastern plains of Washington state, a golden sun blasted land marked by modern windmills and dilapidated farmsteads. If this is America, it is America as a frontier ghost caught on the winds of something much older than our current military-industrial complex.

Debra takes precaution with young Abe, making sure he's not hiding a wire, or has anyway of recording their conversations. He's to write in shorthand and leave any distinguishing details, like gender, out of his story. The two drive down dirt roads, stopping off at various intervals, between silos and shrubs, making sure they aren't being followed. Abe can't believe they'd be found all the way out here. Debra isn't so sure. And the thing is, Debra is right. What starts off as uneasy meeting between two disparate individuals, piecemealing conversation until a flash drive is handed over, becomes a striking game of cat and mouse.   

The genius of Williams' film is how it takes this very familiar premise, sets it in near real-time across a visually striking, equally vast and intimate space, then fills it with the kind of existential dread and introspection that lends itself more to an Abbas Kiarostami film than say a George Clooney vehicle. Truly, the cinephile in me trembles with delight at the notion that If There's A Hell Below is essentially Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry with the gripping tension of an Alan J. Pakula political thriller. From this stark landscape comes questions about our political and societal systems and structures, our moral and ethical pathways. These are framed in a keenly human if immediately opaque fashion, adding to the growing pit of fear in our stomach. Is the well-being of a country, even as an abstract and fleeting idea, greater than our very flesh and blood lives? Where are such lines drawn? And just who is drawing these lines?

Marx and Roscoe's chemistry may be set at medium-cool, but that doesn't mean we aren't drawn in to this duo of opposites, who cull out personal histories and ideologies through their varying takes on how to communicate and not to communicate. On one hand, Debra is curt and prefers to keep a steady eye on the basics -- get in and get out. She's practical. She's the realist. On the other hand, Abe finds his ground in charming asides about childhood and perception. He's trying to coax the real person out from inside Debra's hard shell. He's the dreamer and optimist. He's knowingly naive, but it can't be all that bad, right? As their situation moves from a sweltering paranoia to an all out race of survival, Williams' steady direction doesn't waver, keeping the audience framed close, locked in on the details of the situation just as more mysteries rise from the tall grasses of a lost land marked by the slowly turning giants of an industry half-woke.

If There's A Hell Below's most risky if clever turn comes in a third act shift that helps bookend the film's philosophy on the nature of storytelling and truth. Williams, and his co-writer Matthew Williams, present an intriguing scenario on whether the value of a good story is worth more than cold facts. In a world where personhood is in constant threat from the nefariously benign and irony-riddled systems we have designed to keep ourselves in check, the impressive DIY filmmaming of If There's A Hell Below distills such ideas to often beguiling and terrifying effect. 
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carol roscoeconner marxif there's a hell belownathan williamsSlamdance 2016
Wendy Shanel BehrendFebruary 5, 2016 1:20 PM

Great review. Loved how you articulated the Kiarostami influence. You really saw what this film is up to.

LittleMrJDecember 9, 2016 5:21 PM

Someone please direct me to a webpage that has spoilers for this movie, because I'm not sure what I just watched. Was the intent of Williams to leave the audience scratching it's collective head at a scrambled ending?

Steve JacksonDecember 10, 2016 3:23 AM

That's actually what I'm looking for...

Thomas ArmentoDecember 27, 2016 11:52 AM

My take is that all 4 people involved were working for different agencies. The journalist's lies during his caterpillar story and his inability to really answer the woman's question about why he wanted to be a journalist suggested to me that Abe was never really a journalist. And why would the whistleblower woman go to a small-time newspaper to leak such a risky story? Wouldn't it make more sense to go to a more reputable news outlet?

Once captured, why was the woman spared and the journalist (who we presume was just an innocent journalist with no knowledge of why exactly the woman approach him about her leak) was killed? If what the director presented to us on the surface is true, the reverse should have happened. This leads me to think that Abe's true identity was known by the guy who killed him, and it was his identity as an agent working for a competing enemy/entity that lead to his death.

In the case of the woman, my take is that she was spared and eventually freed because of the information she knew and/or she had greater worth being alive than dead. Why the gunman (who presumably frees the woman) is killed is something I can't offer much on. Was there another person involved with her rescue? Was there a struggle between the woman and the gunman? And why? The gunman's story about the turtles was similar to the journalist's story about caterpillars which leads me to think the gunman had lies eventually exposed by the woman during her "escape".