Nightmare Code, directed by Mark Netter – A Review by Franklin Mount

Nightmare Code, directed by Mark Netter, starring Andrew J. West, Mei Melançon, and Googy Gress, written by M.J. Rotondi and Mark Netter.

We start with a troubled young man (Andrew J. West, best known for his portrayal as the leader of the yuppie cannibal startup in this season’s Walking Dead), feigning nonchalance about serious charges to some forceful people given to issuing threats. Jail, and such. We know about the disaster in Chicago.

He’s Brett Desmond, married, with a five-year old daughter Lacey (Isabella Cuda) whose birthday party he will miss, due to work, and desperation. His loving wife Jennifer (Caitlyn Folley) radiates concern and fear. As we will learn, Desmond is a bit of a Snowdeneseque figure, just not in Moscow under Putin’s protection. Desmond’s expensive lawyers (he’s running out of money to pay them) are concerned.

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Much of the film is shown in “quadrants.” The screen is divided into quarters, so we are looking at four views of the action, although not every quadrant is filled in every frame. This type of view is familiar to anyone who has worked in an office or shopped in a convenience store. Watching the film, one has to look from one quadrant to another. Although it does take a little bit of getting used to, it proves to be a very effective technique, and an essential–and revealing–part of the story.

We’re made aware of a software project called ROPER, which a behavioral program which will spot “bank robbers and terrorists”; Desmond must shepherd ROPER to completion. A wealthy investor, Alex Chou (Ivan Shaw) is pressuring him, with the promise of solving Desmond’s legal problems if he delivers. His colleague (Ericka Schickel) promises him jail time if he fails like “he did in Chicago.” Just get it done.

The action takes place in the vague and detached world of the international professional class, a world composed of interchangeable parts. One does not see the outside world very often; occasionally we look out of a window at a cityscape with trees, office buildings, and urban air; a few times we see the entrance of an office building, with key cards required for admittance. When we see a contractor who is later revealed to be in Mumbai, the only clue we have at first that he might be half-way around the world is a depiction of a Hindu goddess on the wall behind him, and a slight Indian accent. Mucht of the time, it’s not clear what time of day it is. Not a lot of sunlight shines onto these generic offices and their generic office furniture; it all looks alike. A lot of us work in such places nowadays. And the preferred mode of communication is video calls on PCs.

And it’s also the work culture of today, with the young attractive well-dressed sales executive proclaiming, “I want that guy gone,” the guy being Foster Cotton (Googy Gress), an older yet essential coder, he is overweight, and probably makes more than she does. The sales exec doesn’t like the way he looks at her. Cotton is a man with an obsession he’s had since he wrote his first program in Basic. And a fair amount of anger.

Cotton loses it; violence ensues, and Cotton and several others are gone. Desmond faces the task of breaking into and figuring out Cotton’s code, before he can embark on the digital death march to complete ROPER and save his ass. He turns to his old friend, Anton Yurigarian (Bret Roberts), who’s in hiding somewhere with his Russian girlfriend (Tonya Kay) who does not wear much other than some pervy jewelry. Acting as a sane counterpart to Desmond’s paranoia is Nora Huntsman (Mei Melançon). Very expressive and soulful as she holds the crew of dysfunctional coders together, Melançon is a delight. As the film progresses, it gradually dawns on her–and us–that there is something really wrong with this whole ROPER thing.

In the quadrant views, we frequently see people’s faces overlaid with points and lines and labels, names and feelings, seemingly the working of some sort of program attempting to identify the person and classify their emotions and intentions. Today we all live with the knowledge that we’re under video surveillance for a large portion of our lives, especially at work and in our cities’ business districts, transportation hubs–everywhere. But what’s this all about?

From the advance notice, I was under the impression that Nightmare Code was about the national security state, sort of a techie The Lives of Others. It’s not that; Nightmare Code is more fundamental. It’s about what technology does to us. We love technology; it helps and delights us; but it takes away part of our humanity. Nightmare Code is heir to 2001 and the tradition of fear and loathing of technology that goes back through Metropolis all the way to Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Nightmare Code is a low-budget, indie production, but you’d never know it from the look of the film and cinematography, which is superb. As the movie progresses, we become increasingly anxious about the characters’ predicaments, until their situation becomes deeply scary.

Department of Full Disclosure: I went to college with the director, and remain friends to this day; I also kicked in a modest sum to the Indiegogo campaign. And, notably for an indie film, one doesn’t feel that one is looking at actors and acting choices. Nightmare Code creates a world, as movies should. That’s why we go.

–Franklin Mount