Writer’s block is the worst, isn’t it? You could have a dozen plotlines and the complete biographies of a hundred characters floating around in your mind, but the moment you sit down to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard…nothing. The story’s there—right there—but it’s a nebulous mist, dangling just out of your grasp. Sometimes it gets so bad, you think about just giving up entirely—of course, that’s when you’re able to knock out thousands of words in a single day.
Writer’s block has been a theme in many stories centering authors. The latest to explore it is a science fiction-horror film called BLANK. Written by Stephen Herman and directed by Natalie Kennedy, BLANK tightly focuses on Claire Rivers (played by Rachel Shelley), a successful author who has fallen victim to the dreaded affliction. She’s had writer’s block for a while, it seems: she’s missing deadlines, she’s distracted, and her agent is not thrilled about it. Claire has 30 days to produce a draft of a new novel. She needs to shake up the routine and knock the cobwebs loose.
So, she books a stay at The Retreat, a massive house that’s run entirely with A.I., primarily in the forms of Henry (played by Wayne Brady), a concierge hologram, and Rita (played by Heida Reed), a state-of-the-art android dressed like a ‘50s housewife archetype who works one-on-one with Claire, filling the roles of assistant, coach, and drill sergeant. The Retreat provides Claire with food, water, a running path, a cupboard full of her favorite wine, a typewriter, and a sensor that, when stuck to your head, unlocks the stories that are trapped in there.
Everything is going moderately well—until a virus infects all of the A.I. in The Retreat. Suddenly, Claire is trapped inside with no way of contacting the outside world. She’s also trapped with Rita, who refuses to open any doors until Claire has finished her novel…and is becoming volatile.
BLANK is a film that confronts not only writer’s block, but also isolation, paranoia, unresolved trauma, and the inherent dangers of heavily relying on advanced technology. A lot of stories do this or attempt to do this, with varying success. BLANK is one of the few that knocks it out of the park. Everything from the dialogue, pacing, and central cast is thoughtful, compelling, and ultimately compassionate. The protagonist Claire immediately evokes empathy from the audience, due in no small part to Shelley’s dynamic performance. In this role, Shelley oscillates from despondent to petrified to enraged in a way that’s both entertaining and completely believable.
Shelley’s primary scene partner, Reed, delivers an equally jaw-dropping performance as the artificially intelligent Rita. In her role as an unpredictable robot, Reed completely embodies her character in her vocal inflections and cadences and in how she moves her body. It’s such a precise and detailed portrayal, it’s easy to forget that Rita is actually played by a human and not a robot. It’s a seriously eerie dip into uncanny valley territory that sends a chill up your spine even before The Retreat’s A.I. starts glitching out.
Together, Shelley and Reed put on a show that commands undivided attention with exciting dialogue, steadily increasing tension, and even a few stunt sequences choreographed by Kenan Ali and Kaitlin Howard.
They’re supported by Brady, who only appears in hologram form, and by Annie Cusselle and Rebecca-Clare Evans, who play a younger version of Claire and her mother Helen, respectively.
BLANK is director Natalie Kennedy’s first (of many, I hope) feature film. If you’re a fan of “Black Mirror”, Stephen King novels, and Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt,” this is a film you’ve got to watch. Even if you’re not a fan of any of those things, you should still watch it. Like most successful science fiction and thriller stories, the technology-borne horror is just the outermost layer. The real backbone of BLANK is the strength and vulnerability that can only be found in humans.
BLANK releases in Select Theaters and On Demand on September 23.