Director: David Brooks
Starring: Brian Geraghty, Josh Peck, Alice Eve
Running Time: 90 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Occasionally, a point comes when you're watching a somewhat implausible or ridiculous film and you just have to give in and surrender to the pure craftsmanship on display and admit you're having a blast. In the low budget horror thriller ATM, that moment comes for me when a parka wearing killer pulls out one of those canvas folding chairs and sits in the parking lot, enjoying the view of three young financiers fighting for their lives inside the glass enclosed ATM kiosk he's just transformed into a watery tomb. The best thing about single location thrillers isn't just how they lock the characters into an enclosed predicament with little hope for escape, but how they trap writers and directors into making difficult decisions to get them out. There's literally no where to run or hide as the filmmakers are forced to move from point A to point B to point C with their backs against the wall.
First-time director David Brooks (working from a script from Buried writer Chris Sparling) turns in a noble, underrated effort sure to be needlessly picked apart for logical inconsistencies. Everyone likes to play monday morning quarterback with movies like this, speculating that characters should have done this or that and in theory they're probably right. But until you're trapped by a sniper in a phone booth, buried alive or stuck on a ski lift in the dead of winter with hungry wolves waiting below, it's tough to say. Of all these unlikely scenarios, this one seems the most plausible on paper, yet is strangely the most embarrassing to analyze. Fun, suspenseful and great deal more entertaining than it's gotten credit for, Brooks makes the most of his hour and a half.
When David (Brian Geraghty) is urged by his friend and co-worker Corey (Josh Peck) to ask out office crush Emily (Alice Eve), he finally summons up the courage at the company's Christmas party, on her last day of work before departing to another firm. Thrilled at the prospect of driving Emily home, a drunk Corey intrudes to bum a ride off David as well, convincing him to stop and get Pizza after midnight. But he he has no money so they make an impromptu stop at a free-standing ATM in the middle of a seemingly deserted parking lot.
How the script gets all three from in the car to inside the booth when only one needs to make a withdrawal is pretty believable. The explanation of how they're without cell phone usage and parked the car quite a distance from the machine in an empty lot is also inspired. Then the parka clad maniac shows up, looking like a cross between the killer from Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer, if you just replace a hook with a crowbar as his weapon of choice. Quickly dispensing of a passerby and a security guard to send a message, the three need to make a run for it and get to David's car. But this guy has a plan, continuously toying with them as they're forced to call the kiosk home for the night in sub-zero temperatures as they plot an escape.
There's no false advertising in the title as nearly all the action takes place at or around the enclosed machine, aside from the first twenty minutes which does an excellent job introducing the characters. The same can't be said for other single space thrillers that cheat a bit by incorporating flashbacks or giving elaborate explanations for how the characters winded up in the situation. The "how" here simply doesn't matter and aside from a brief, seemingly unrelated revelation about David losing a client's 401K, we're see that these three were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.The randomness of it works, since if they were targeted for their occupations or some other personal vendetta, the situation just wouldn't have seemed as as terrifying.
Helping some is that all three characters are extremely likable and the opening workplace scenes involving David's crush on Emily, as well as the dynamics of his friendship with Corey (a loudmouth who David lets walk over him like a doormat), effectively sets the stage. Yes, once they're trapped they do make some dumb decisions and the killer gets very lucky, but people are capable of doing dumb things and killers sometimes get lucky. Most of these holes have an explanation (like why the killer doesn't just break in), but it's of little consequence since Brooks doesn't let the action lag for a second, it's well shot and the performances are top notch.
Geraghty's a great actor, having already proved himself in 2009's Best Picture winning The Hurt Locker, and he's strong again here as the lead, as David learns to man up over the course of the night. Formerly the Josh of Nickelodeon's Drake and Josh, a highly emotional Peck delivers the film's best performance, making you actually care about what's too frequently a stereotypical role and becomes instrumental in selling the film's more difficult logical leaps. Alice Eve is probably the weakest link, but that's through no fault of her own as the part just isn't as well developed as the other two. But it's still worth noting Emily isn't at all portrayed as a damsel in distress, but an active leader and problem solver in trying to escape the situation.
That this feels as much a tension-filled thriller as it does a conventional horror movie is a surprise considering it features a hooded lunatic stalking his prey, but there's more suspense than gore, as the most excitement possible gets wrung out of a tiny, enclosed space. My biggest worry was that the ball would be dropped in the final act, which frequently happens in single location thrillers that try to open things up as the plot winds down. The "real world" with cops and consequences tend to intrude, turning the aftermath into a procedural. Surprisingly, that's not an issue here as the closing minutes are handled really well, putting the focus exactly where it belongs while wisely leaving enough big questions on the table to get you thinking. If this were a more mainstream horror outing, there's no doubt the killer's face would be shown and his exact motivations spelled out for us, undermining everything that came before. Could any of this happen? Probably not, and most definitely not like this. But since when did that become a prerequisite for appreciating any thriller? The highest praise that can be given to ATM is that you're so transfixed by what's happening there's practically no time to care.