It all begins with a story. A young man (Will Cassayd-Smith) is sharing a smoke with his Russian neighbor, Roman, who unexpectedly asks if Will could watch a package for him for about two weeks while he leaves town. The package is a bag with one large book, two small books, and a few loose leaf pages all containing stamps of various rarity and value that Roman doesn’t want to leave at home with his wife, with whom he is fighting, while he’s gone. It seems a simple enough request, so Will agrees to hold it for two weeks…but two turns into several without Roman returning. As more time passes, Will becomes more familiar with the stamps for which he’s become custodian. This is the story Will told producer Alexander Greer, who immediately recognized the strangeness of the tale and the impossibility it represents. Is all of this for real? Is it just an elaborate tale for entertainment? Or is there something a little darker going on? Director Joe Saunders’s documentary, The Penny Black, isn’t just a mystery about am inexplicable interaction between two mostly-strangers, but an intense examination of personal ethics and the reality we create for ourselves.
With any type of story (written, projected, oral), whether or not you can trust the storyteller is key. As an audience, we need to know if the adventure you’re going on is as it seems. For instance, one of the best cinematic examples (tarnished though it may be by the filmmaker’s and star’s horrific deeds) is Verbal Kent in The Usual Suspects (1995). We’re meant to believe from the moment Kevin Spacey’s Verbal opens his mouth to Chazz Palminteri’s Special Agent Dave Kujan that what we’re hearing is an accurate recounting of events. Credit to screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) for crafting a narrative that’s airtight from start to finish so that we’ll likely never know the truth, leaving only with ideas and notions with no direction to go in. This is what Saunders’s miraculously achieves with The Penny Black as the story starts relatively simple and straight-forward as we’re introduced to Will and he regales us, the audience, with what happened. To offer a sense of security, Saunders also quickly establishes who Will is via cross-edited interviews with Will from two distinctly different moments based on setups in which Will explains who he is as the son of a con man. You’d think this would be some kind of third act reveal or something that Saunders would hold close to his chest so that the audience wouldn’t be skeptical of Will almost immediately; rather, Saunders treats the audience like players in a game of three-card monte in which we know that we may be messed with for the entirety and we’ll belly-up to the table again and again out of a strange fascination and hunger to understand. Whether you walk away feeling like you’ve been had more or less depends on you.
For all intents and purposes, Saunders and his team appear to do everything as above board as possible. Title cards are used in between scenes to provide context of what was just shown or to set up what’s to come. Reenactments are used sparingly to add a little visual flavor to Will’s narration of events which is executed via either a talking head interview or presented as a voiceover. Mostly, what we see is presented in as chronological an order as possible as Saunders attempts to track Will from one update to another. Especially as new notions or players are introduced into Will’s story (Will’s father via old family video, Will’s mother, Will’s ex-girlfriend Allison, private investigator Cheryl, and Bonnie Collins, a woman with a potential claim on the stamps), Saunders attempts time and again to provide a solid foundation for the audience so that they’re never lost in the increasingly convoluted tale. With each new person added, the complexity increases to the point that the whole of it would feel right at home in a mainstream thriller. But are we dealing with a stranger-than-fiction situation or something else? Even more question arise, as Saunders mentions in the production notes of the release, when Will appears to cut his hair or shave at odd intervals, leaving Saunders unsure of whether this was a willful attempt to undercut the legitimacy of the chronology of events by making his visual appearance change rapidly throughout recording.
The Penny Black transitions from a harmless tale of happenstance into something darker and more menacing around the time Saunders becomes less of a fly-on-the-wall and actively inserts himself into the story. This isn’t planned, not like the typical interview-prep which can happen before shooting an interview in a documentary, and doesn’t seem to be something Saunders expected to occur either. The cause is, well, up to you to determine, but it immediately changes every interaction that happens from that moment forward with Will. It’s not that we see Will explicitly do or say anything unexpected or that Saunders positions individuals or information in a manner that’s from a specific perspective. It’s that there’s a moment where Saunders starts actively questioning Will’s authenticity and, in that moment, we start to notice a few inconsistencies that could be a matter of editing or lack of how much time is passing from one scene to another. From then on, The Penny Black repositions itself from a curio about a stamp collection into an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.
You may have noticed that this review has gone several paragraphs without explaining the title or how the stamps are significant to it or the documentary. This is neither intentional nor accidental as the stamps, while something which the narratives — Will’s and Saunders’s — do circle, they are little more than a MacGuffin. The title refers to a specific stamp, first in circulation in the United Kingdom in May 1840, that was pulled within the year because the material used to cancel the stamps (demonstrate that they’d been used) was water-soluble, so they could be cleaned and reused. It is an innocent item whose history is forever tarnished due to the fraudulent acts of others, something which Will deals with day-to-day given his father’s history and the age at which Will learned who his father really was. It makes sense that Saunders would use this stamp to title the documentary with the similarity between the object and his subject, when given any strong thought. What may perplex is why we, the audience, and Saunders question Will to begin with. What is it about Will’s calm demeanor, his gift for deflection and obfuscation, that makes his actions seem questionable even when everything he does appears without reproach? Are we presuming villainy because of his genetic connection or because of what we might do in the same situation?
To quote The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” Saunders appears to take this quote to heart as The Penny Black never makes concrete what it thinks about its central participant. We, the audience, are given answers, but they are, like life, incomplete in enough places that the holes are likely to gnaw and scratch your cranium in perpetuity. If there’s any consolation, Saunders likely feels just like us. You’d be wise to check out the documentary so that you can join in the mystery and see if there’s something that Saunders, with over 100 hours of footage distilled in 90 minutes, does not. The tricky thing is, will you see what you think you see or just what you want to?
Available on digital June 1st, 2021.
For more information, head to The Penny Black’s official website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.