“Austerity” might be one of the dirtiest words at the moment. Over the past few years, in cities and countries around the world, citizens have taken to the streets to protest government cutbacks to social programs, infrastructure, and more, all done in the name of protecting the economy, and keeping budgets balanced. And another word has been tossed around in equal measure — “responsibility.” It’s one that you’ll hear a lot in Alexis Alexiou‘s “Wednesday 04:45,” an anti-thriller of sorts, set against the backdrop of Greece’s recent financial woes. Even though it has a ticking clock narrative, the film relies heavily on mood and atmosphere to tell its tale of a man feeling the grip of the credit crunch, who spends one day-long journey of the soul trying to put his life together, before the various bad decisions he’s made over the years tear it all apart.
Stelios (Stelios Manos) isn’t the easiest protagonist to embrace. He cheates on his wife, snorts cocaine in his office, and is barely a presence in the lives on his children. His one true love is his Summertown jazz club, a venture he’s been running for 17 years with modest success. But with Christmas on the horizon, everything around him is beginning to collapse. His wife is looking for a divorce, the expensive sound system in the club is on the fritz, he can barely afford to pay for hotel rooms for the visiting jazz bands, but even worse, a Romanian loan shark (Mimi Branescu) is now calling in the debt he’s owed. That word, “responsibility,” comes to the fore again. Stelios was given a pretty decent deal as far as loan sharking is concerned. He wasn’t required to put up any collateral, and he was given a low 3.5% interest rate with a couple months free to go with it, leaving the lenders to wonder why he fell so far behind. Unlike a bank, the consequences of non-payment this time around could be deadly, and Stelios has to raise the money or else give over the club he’s poured his blood and sweat into building.
Meanwhile, the hot-headed Albanian immigrant Omer (Giorgos Symeonidis) also has the Romanian coming to him to get what he’s owed. But Omer insists he’s more than paid up, and with business at his strip club slowing to a standstill, he adds that you can’t get blood from a stone. In short, he won’t submit to a shakedown, but soon his fate overlaps with Stelios’, with the mobsters finding the one pressure point they can push down on hard: Omer’s young son.
Alexiou is certainly a stylish filmmaker. His framing and composition are sound, his ability to set the film’s steady tone is admirable, and he conveys the neon-soaked emptiness of Athens during the financial crisis quite well. But it’s not so certain what exactly he’s trying to say with his movie. Repeated shots of untied shoelaces, and the insistent utterance of “responsibility” throughout are presumably meant to suggest that he believes Stelios alone is to blame for his circumstances. Meanwhile, Omer not so subtly blames others repeatedly through the film for his own failures. And yet, Alexiou wants to the audience to sympathize to some degree with both characters. Stelios is portrayed as a man finally attempting to right the various wrongs he has amassed, while we learn of Omer’s battles as a newcomer to the country looking to establish himself professionally and personally. The problem is that Alexiou is caught between two different movies.
Split up into chapters, with title cards giving us a quote from the movie along with the current time so we know how long Stelios has left before he faces judgement day with the Romanian, the film doesn’t build the kind of tension you would expect from that structure. There’s a desire to make a statement about contemporary Greece within the genre construct, but when the film reaches the finale, it ditches those aspirations and just goes for a big blowout action setpiece that undoes much of the thematic undercurrents. It’s a sequence not rooted in any believable motivation from a character standpoint. Bullets fly, rain turns to snow, and Christmas is ushered in with the police on the streets following an arson attack on the neighborhood Christmas tree. The titular timestamp of “Wednesday 04:45” has arrived, but instead of being significant or symbolic, it’s just another date on the calendar. [C-]