We’re currently in a cinematic climate fearful of the power of the internet, but cyber-stalking in particular has been a popular flavor with filmmakers going all the back to “The Net,” in which Sandra Bullock found out just how much of your life can be erased through the nefarious use of computers. Two decades later, it’s not just computers where we can be compromised, but on our smartphones, too. And if you’re a really determined bad guy (or any kind of governmental security agency) you can even log every keystroke, password, and communication from a targeted piece of digital equipment. That seems to be of particular fascination to writer/director Branden Kramer who has turned his short film “Webcam” into the feature length “Ratter,” a stalking tale that purports to be told through the eye of the omnipresent but unseen hacker himself.
“Spring Breakers” star Ashley Benson leads the film as Emma, a graduate student from Wisconsin who has just landed in New York City to attend school. The move has meant breaking up with her boyfriend Alex (Michael William Freeman), so she can have a fresh start, but it’s a decision that he doesn’t take well. That aside, things seem to be going well for Emma. At school, her studiousness has caught the attention of her professor (Alex Cranmer), her good looks the eye of Michael (Matt McGorry), and she’s formed a fast friendship with Nicole (Rebecca Naomi Jones). But unbeknownst to Emma, she’s being watched, and the audience voyeuristically views the movie (mostly) through from the point of view of her laptop and iPhone camera, operated by a mysterious assailant.
At first, Emma doesn’t notice anything amiss, but her attacker slowly but surely starts to become emboldened. Emails start getting deleted, photos are wiped from her computer, and eventually, there are strange knocks at her door in the middle of the night. There are other signs that not only is someone tracking her, but at the very least wants to scare her, and at the worst, plans the unthinkable. While this sounds like a taut thriller that slowly tightens a noose of tension, Kramer’s film doesn’t have much going for it beyond its rather visually bland conceit. We don’t see much of Emma’s world beyond the classroom and her apartment, the latter of which is where most of the film takes place. Since we’re watching things unfold from a couple of static points of view (and even the phone seems to get stuck in the same usual positions), this is the kind of film that requires a script and pace to keep things interesting, but Kramer makes the fatal mistake of confusing narrative inertia with slow burn suspense. Not much happens in “Ratter” until the final fifteen or twenty minutes, when the premise finally boils over into thriller mode, but when the steam clears, you realize there’s not much in the pot.
Without giving too much away, Kramer is ultimately less interested in the fate of Emma, or in solving his own riddles and mysteries, than in pushing toward a conclusion that wants to pair up a moral lesson with a shocking flourish. But Kramer doesn’t earn those stripes. As the credits roll, you realize “Ratter” is a bit sleazy in its depiction of Emma, putting the character through an emotional and at times physical wringer, but for no payoff except a rather vague lesson about how easily our lives are under threat from psychopaths with computer skills. Lacking any kind of deeper thematic subtext, or even commentary on sexual or power dynamics (or a combination of the two), which would be a natural fit for a movie like this, there is a core emptiness to “Ratter” that is hard to shake. Dropped into Emma’s life with little context except that which serves the bare thread of the plot (which manages to stretch to eighty minutes and still feel like an eternity), there is something a bit cruel, especially in the movie’s final moments, about watching her being used as a prop rather than as a character with complexity, agency, and depth.
It is indeed the film’s finale that transforms the picture from a below average, missed opportunity, to something misjudged on a fundamental level. “Ratter” wants to be provocative, but mistakes pushing buttons, with making a statement, and in the process undoes the potential of the movie, while betraying the audience’s trust. [F]