When you get together with old friends, one of two things can happen: you realize that you’ve grown apart or you click together like no time passed. Both are beautiful and tragic in their own way, but it seems safer to say that the latter feeling, the notion that time held still until you could get back together, is the preferred of the two. According to the press notes for first-time feature director Alberto Belli and Jim Mahoney’s (Klaus) Gatlopp: Hell of a Game, the birth of their film came from such a positive experience when Mahoney gathered with a few old friends to go drinking, only to fall down a time hole playing a board game. The reconnection felt magical, prompting Mahoney to conceptualize the night as something bigger, stranger, and more dangerous. The resulting film is all of that while in possession of a loving heart, the thing which time cannot break or bend among those whom we’ve chosen as family.
Paul (Mahoney) is getting divorced and is moving in with his old friend Cliff (Jon Bass). As a way to welcome him, Cliff surprises Paul by inviting Samantha (Emmy Raver-Lampman) and Dominic (Sarunas J. Jackson) to join them, bringing together a foursome with years’ worth of memories who lost track of each other while Paul dated his soon-to-be-ex Alice (Shelly Hennig). To help the four get reacquainted, Cliff pulls out a drinking/board game, Gatlopp, for them to play before Samantha and Dominic head out and Paul sulks to his new bedroom. The first mistake they make is not reading the instructions because, before too long, these estranged friends start to realize that the moment you start to play, you have to finish and finish before sunrise or an eternity locked in the game they will be.
If you’re looking for a comparison film, Jumanji (1995) is likely the first to come to mind and not just because Mahoney references it in the production notes. This quartet of friends is playing a supernaturally-powered board game that pushes its players to confront something in order to win. While the film does bear shades of Jumanji and follow-up Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005), it also reminds of Labyrinth (1986) and Stay Tuned (1992), films which bend reality as characters are forced to go on a journey of self through extraordinary challenges. The major difference between those films and Gatlopp is that the majority of the latter film takes place in one location, Cliff’s living room. Few scenes are shot outside of the living room and even fewer outside of the house itself, either in the present or as a flash back. This requires a great deal of creativity in the storytelling to keep the momentum going, which Mahoney (as writer) does incredibly well. For instance, the obvious thing in a four-character film where they haven’t seen each other is to break down their defenses to get real with each other. With fate on the line, there’s not much time for dicking around, so the game specifically calls out the players. Ingeniously, this aspect serves to both prop up the tension because it’s a terrifying notion that a board game might psychically know your thoughts and to naturally keep the pressure on. As explained in the film, Gatlopp is a Swedish term meaning “gauntlet,” so to allow any sense of slowing down would hinder the tension.
Another big bonus is the editing from Belli and Jeff Sharpe (Dial Back). Rather than keep things static with typical cuts, Belli and Sharpe offer a touch of flair from time to time, which adds a dash of momentum even when characters are standing still. The best example of this is in the beginning during the “meet the characters” portion and we observe Samantha on the phone with her business partner. Instead of just cutting between the two, Belli and Sharpe opt to use the car she’s waiting for and then driving as the means of transitioning between her side and the other side of the phone call. Samantha is all about urgency, a real “go go go” energy, so utilizing a standard cut during the conversation would underline who Sam is. Instead, by using these playful transitions, there’s a sense of movement signifying Samantha’s need to constantly push forward. As we discover in the film, this is a critical component to the character, not just as the “leader” of their friend group but as a person. Hat tip to Belli and Sharpe as well for the critical editing in two early action sequences between the first clue that something’s amiss (trust me, it’s not a hologram) and the first act of aggression from the game (take the hit when it’s yours to take) as both succeed in achieving the oomph they seek thanks to smart editing and actor performance.
This is a minor thing, but can have big implications in terms of how individuals connect with the film. The four are meant to be long-time friends, so close that Samantha’s mother asks after them. From their conversation in the present and in the flash backs, we get the sense that they’ve known each other through some serious moments in their lives and yet it’s never clearly defined as to when they came together. This matters strictly because there’s a moment when Cliff shares something personal that seems like something the other three would know based solely on how long they’ve known each other. But that’s mostly from inference. This is all to say that if this crew knew each other since, high school say, Cliff’s story should be well-known. Though this could be a group that came together in college, there’s something about how they engage each other that feels like a deeper connection than just college, making the estrangement a huge deal.
This may very well be an instance of the reviewer putting too much of themselves into the film, but, based on another comment by Mahoney in the production notes, “In the end, my goal was always for people watching to see a little slice of themselves in these misshapen characters, luxuriate in their own nostalgia, and maybe enjoy an adult beverage as they do so…”. Now, I haven’t had a drink in years (no reason, really), but I, personally, couldn’t help but think of my three friends from high school: Glen, Liz, and Ashley. Liz I knew from kindergarten, Glen I met in first grade, and Ashley joined our school in seventh grade. For all intents and purposes, Ashley was our Samantha: take no shit, smart as hell, and she’ll always go to bat for her friends. I moved states just before my senior year and we didn’t stay as close as I would’ve liked (they did, but I’m a shitty communicator). We tried to see each other as we could with distance, marriage, and kids, for some, making it hard, but since Ashley passed suddenly at the start of 2020, the remaining three try to stay connected. Watching Gatlopp I couldn’t help but see my friends, different though our circumstances are, which means, if nothing else, Mahoney achieved his intended goal. Gatlopp is a lot of fun and its cast is fully game for what the narrative throws at them, but the script nails that bittersweetness of reconnection and the cast embodied the lasting affection that I feel for my old friends. In this regard, I encourage you not to watch Gatlopp: Hell of a Game alone. If you feel comfortable gathering in a group, find your core friends and put this on. Take a few drinks, if you should feel so inclined. Go on this adventure with Samantha, Paul, Cliff, and Travis together.
Available on VOD and digital June 23rd, 2022.
For more information, head to XYZ Films’s official Gatlopp: Hell of a Game webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.