It used to be that when something horrible happened, citizenry had to wait for official word before they knew what was going on. This meant that their imaginations could run wild with speculation, their worst fears, their most depraved visualization, could run rampant until details would emerge, proving their ideations true or false. With the improvements to technology, the rise of citizen journalism has proven to be an incredible boon as far as allowing communication to be decentralized and democratized. There’s just one major issue that folks fail to recognize: without the skillset or tools to vet information, proclaiming something becomes truth that’s too hard to rollback. This is the basis for the latest Philip Barantini (Boiling Point) project, Accused, which had its world premiere during the 2023 Overlook Film Festival. Focusing on a young man who finds himself both back at his childhood home in a remote part of the United Kingdom and the primary suspect in a potential terrorist attack, Accused enables the audience to see just what false journalism and mob mentality powered by xenophobia can do, daring you to look away even when the lead performance leaves you spellbound and still.
With his parents going on vacation, Harri Bhavsar (Chaneil Kular) leaves his London flat and heads home to take care of the family dog and keep an eye on things. While on the train to meet his father, Ramesh (Nitin Ganatra), Harri and the other nearby riders learn that someone set off a bomb at the central station. For the rest of the day, broadcast and online chatter is about what news is confirmed, what news is speculative, and the fear that this is similar to the July 7th, 2005, suicide bomber incident. With rage and xenophobia rising with each passing moment, things take a turn when Harri is implicated online as the bomber, and suddenly his quiet home visit turns into a fight for survival.
Scrolling TikTok as a means of procrastinating, I came across three different instances in which people used their phones to capture moments. In one, two people laid down in a water fountain at Walt Disney’s Epcot. In the second, a content creator discussed police footage of a father’s arrest for piercing his minor child’s ear. In the third, someone recording a video and taking photos while at a baseball game started getting harassed by park attendees. In each video, the comment section is rife with activity that ranges from the banal to acid-tinged as each person offers their thoughts on a situation they don’t have the full scope of. These days, if you’re caught on camera doing something (good, innocent, bad, or nefarious), the comment section is going to declare you how they see fit while also being terrified of having that attention placed on themselves. I’m a writer by nature and yet I rarely comment on anything I see because there’s that part of my brain that is concerned that I don’t know everything. Perhaps that’s the B.A./M.A. in communications talking, but media literacy is important, especially in an age where one’s opinions are often so closely tied to individual identity that to offer conflicting concepts or differing ideas is to attack someone on a personal level. All of this to say that clearly co-writer James Cummings (Boiling Point) and first-time feature writer Barnaby Boulton studied this when developing Accused, infusing their script with a deftness and razor-sharp social commentary that should slice through every viewer until they recognize their own culpability in the fictional events that take place before them.
The bulk of Accused is a one-person show wherein Kular is supported by only camerawork and score, which we’ll get to momentarily. Before that, though, I think it’s important to acknowledge the manner in which Barantini *presents* the rising storm before it hits Harri’s home. Via montage, the audience is shown people interacting online by either tweeting, writing articles on websites, or using other forms of social media. In almost every shot, the person isn’t in full-frame, the focus being below the neck so that we, the audience, focus only on where they are (someplace of relatively safety and comfort), what tools they’re using (phone, laptop, desktop), the color of their skin, and the language they use to convey their voracity. They are faceless and nameless, they are anonymous, hidden behind avatars and pseudonyms, sharing in collective rage, empowered by their anger to create a false sense of righteousness that emboldens those of weaker constitution to shift from violent words into deeds. Well before Harri learns that he’s suspect number one, a horrifying pit forms inside our stomachs because we know what’s coming, creating a disquieting tension as we wait for Harri to catch up. To make matter worse, Barantini alternates between showing us Harri relaxing on his couch watching television, the camera positioned behind the laptop in front of him so all we see are his eyes and forehead, and a straight-on shot of the laptop as the Twitter-like SMS service website constantly refreshes with more hateful rhetoric and the eventual “evidence” of Harri as the bomber. In this sequence, we find ourselves horrified as we know what’s to come, that acrid taste of bile in the back of our throat as we plead for Harri to look down, to rip the band-aid off, and yet he doesn’t. We scream (vocally or silently) like we do for a victim of a slasher film to look the other way, run out of the house, or phone a friend, desperate for Harri to look down. So great is the tension that when he finally does, we are not relieved, we are devastated as Harri shatters before us when he discovers an entire country wants his head. Even when things shift into the home invasion segment, the camerawork doesn’t automatically meet the traditional format, maintaining almost all of its attention onto how Harri is reacting to the situation. This means that sometimes we’re looking at what he’s looking at with him, sometimes with the full frame, and sometimes we’re only seeing him — each approach instilling a need to scan every inch of frame for a horror potentially lurking in the fringes, readying ourselves for some new disquiet or trauma. But when all we see is Harri, we find ourselves studying Kular’s every expression, trying to read the actor’s face for some sense of that which we don’t see, presented entirely with the visage of an innocent man in abject horror.
Unlike others in the horror genre, we’re not looking out for a boogeyman, a Shape, or some other preternatural force, humanity is the foe and that’s far more frightening due to the realism of the situation. In the U.S., we have examples like Pizzagate, wherein a man was convinced by online chatter that a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor was a front for child abuse. Even as that has been debunked, the conspiracy theory continues with the newly-fired Tucker Carlson, whose last show saw him eating pizza. What American audiences may not realize is that the laws in the U.K. work differently with social media, where falsehood statements are treated as illegal actions, making the first steps Harri takes upon learning what’s circulating online being the most rational things he does. But the law can only do so much when otherwise-sensed individuals decide they know what the truth is and go after innocent people. It’s here that Accused becomes devastating and it’s all because of Kular. His performance is measured and appropriate, never pushing too far or too hard into melodrama, reacting with an incredible honesty as he spirals alone in his childhood home. (The touch of this happening at home is lovely because (1) it places him in a remote place, (2) gives him home field advantage, and (3) implies that there is no safety for him once the invasion begins; where else would he be safe than the place where he played as a child.) Though Kular is playing a fully grown adult, there is a shrinking on display, a physicality in his performance wherein he shrinks down as though a prepubescent child terrified of the dark and in need of adult consolation. Perhaps it’s because of my own two children and the manner in which we raise them, as well as knowing the vitriolic nature of social media engagement, but Kular’s performance made me want to cradle him, soothe his ache, and take action to protect him. Partnered with the use of score from Aaron May and David Ridley (Boiling Point), there are moments when even the most banal act of scrolling social media feels like witnessing the reading of the Necronomicon, the Kandarian force barreling toward Kular to swallow him whole before dawn’s breaking light. So seamless is the connection between performance and sound to convey tension that the moment you realize the score is gone, the silence echoes and turns into a whole new level of horror.
There are some stories which borrow from society, deemphasizing here, amplifying there, in order to manufacture drama. This is not the case with Accused. Even if American audiences don’t understand the racial tensions that have persisted in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe (the mention of the Irish Troubles adds a layer of generational trauma to the tale), there’s enough xenophobia in the United States to make the specificity of Cummings and Boulton’s script, as well as Kular mesmerizing performance, impactful. While I tend to seek out the optimistic view of things, to play Devil’s Advocate, to seek out more than one perspective before telling myself the story of what is happening, what occurs within the Accused is so believably real (see: Sunil Tripathi and the 2013 Boston Bombing) but because one doesn’t have to scroll far on any social media platform before “the character of the day” is discovered. From the safety of our couches when we don’t have to look anyone in the eye, folks will say anything with little regard or consideration for the pain that may come. It certainly helps, from a technical perspective, that there’s not a falsehood within Accused, everything coming together so that Harri’s nightmare becomes ours. It’s an experience everyone should have once and, ideally, through the protection of a fictional narrative, not in reality.
Screened during The Overlook Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Overlook Film Festival 2023 film schedule page.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.
Categories: Films To Watch, In Theaters, Recommendation, Reviews
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