Directed by David Brooks
In some ways, it’s surprising that it took this long for someone to make a horror film about people stranded inside an ATM. It’s a pretty basic fear in modern society after all: being terrorized, assaulted or robbed during a routine stop at an automated teller. It’s a premise that has potential, especially considering ATM comes from the writer of the superior claustrophobic thriller, Buried. If a movie built entirely around one guy trapped inside a coffin could work so well, there’s no reason ATM couldn’t have worked too.
But it doesn’t. And it’s easy to tell something’s wrong almost instantly. Even before we get to the isolated location, we find ourselves saddled with characters whose behavior never quite rings true. Our “hero”, David, is a young investor who can’t seem to find the courage to ask out Emily – even though it’s her last day on the job. He’s egged on by a smarmy friend, Corey (a douchier version of Ryan Howard from The Office), to attend the company Christmas party as a last-ditch effort to make an impression on the object of his affection. Even these scenes are bland and unconvincing: corporate sleazebags sit around telling awful jokes to one another while leaving attractive blonde women to stand off in the distance by themselves (sleazy guys I’ve worked with have pounced on a lot less). Emily winds up accepting a ride home from David and Corey inexplicably tags along for no other reason than the filmmakers needed a third person to terrorize.
ATM is the kind of movie where everything is off-kilter. Sure, there’s a vague reason for the impromptu ATM stop, a half-baked excuse for parking the car halfway across the parking lot and some grounds for luring all three characters inside the desolate booth without their cell phones. You could almost make due with these thin lapses in logic if things course-corrected once our resident psychopath showed up. Unfortunately, once that happens things go further off the deep end. It goes without saying that the situation escalates from creepy to terrifying (at least for our characters, never the audience) but their initial refusal to leave the booth over what amounts to a creepy dude standing in the shadows never feels as convincing as it should.
Because this situation is grounded in a very tangible reality, it needed a bit more umph to repel the bouts of unintentional hilarity. For example, despite being the middle of the night, there’s really no reason to be afraid of the guy outside wearing a jacket. Couldn’t he simply be waiting to use the ATM? This is the beginning of a bigger problem, however, as ATM quickly goes out of its way to showcase the most needlessly diabolical screen psychopath since Jigsaw. The difference? At least the Saw movies were about victims learning to respect life and confront the terrible decisions they’d made. Here, our killer booby traps the parking lot with tripwire – in case anyone should do the smart thing in try to run. He also kills the heat, cuts the power and gleefully murders anyone who happens by.
And people do happen by. An ill-fated rent-a-cop, a hapless dog walker and even a red herring dressed in exactly the same coat as our villain. All of them feel deliberately inserted as a means of making the proceedings more exciting and twisty somehow, but it never amounts to more than frustration. Our core characters don’t even react properly to the carnage; two of them even flirt with a kiss after watching someone take a screwdriver to the stomach! By the time the ATM is being flooded with water (an impossibility considering the front door is obscured, but can be made ajar while this is happening), it’s just really hard to give a damn about the outcome.
Director David Brooks is saddled with an awful script and bad-to-inconsistent performances. He deserves credit for generating some spooky atmosphere along the way, however. The ATM itself looks a bit eerie in its manufactured isolation, and the killer is always disappearing into shadows, suggesting these events might as well be occurring on some isolated country road, and not off of a freeway exit. The film also features excellent sound design that helps the viewer feel the chill of the cold and windy city night. In a better film, with stronger characters and more believable decisions, some of the suspense scenarios might’ve worked, and Brooks suggests there’s a better film in him waiting to escape. There are moments where the tension mounts impressively, even if the right payoff is lacking.
At one point in ATM, the film seems to suggest that, even in this tech-infused world, where cameras are everywhere and GPS can track ones every move, we, as a society, are still vulnerable. It’s a valid point, I suppose, but the film waits until the very to end make it, and seems a little too pleased with itself after doing so (it reiterates the same message again and again throughout the hilariously padded end credits). It also sacrifices any semblance of satisfying climax in favor of relaying said message (which is more like an unproven thesis anyway), ending the movie on an incredulous note. Imagine if Halloween ended with Michael killing Lynda and Annie, refusing to chase Laurie because he realized Loomis was getting close. That’d be tantamount to what you can expect from the 11th hour of ATM.
On one hand, ATM isn’t a boring film. Clocking in at 81 minutes, it’s well-paced and entertaining – even if it’s provoking unwanted laughter most of the time. Then again, it’s a wasted opportunity that never successfully exploits or explores any number of creepy scenarios that could spring from a late night stop. The most surprising thing here is what IFC saw in this film that made them think it’d be worthy of a release. Save it for a rainy afternoon, if at all.
2 out of 5