Short Film Review: The Tunnel (2016).
Tunnel packs mountains of tension and dread into its svelte 14 minute run time.
André Øvredal hits the theaters this weekend with his latest wide release, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. The Norwegian phenom delivered a scary, good time with 2016’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and broke onto the wider movie-loving world with the delightfully twisted dark comedy, Troll Hunter in 2011. To gear up for his newest screamer, I picked a short science fiction gem from Øvredal, The Tunnel (aka. Tunnelen) which accomplishes in 14 minutes what many horror films can’t get done in an hour.
The Tunnel (2016).
An ordinary family of four is on the freeway, returning from an afternoon at the beach. The motorway is packed bumper to bumper with identical, self-driving vehicles. The reason for the touch and go traffic are two-fold: the city outside is packed to bursting with people, and one mile ahead is The Tunnel. We’re not immediately sure why the structure looms so large, but we soon learn why everyone on the road fears it.
In Cars, No One Can Hear You Scream…
From the opening credits, I was thrilled with The Tunnel. The titles play over what looks like a starry sky while music eerily reminiscent of Alien plays to a loud crescendo. After this clever bit of priming, we get a pull-back which reveals that the starry sky is actually a floormat in the car, covered with sand from the trip to the beach. In one 20 second movement, André Øvredalhas set the tone and motifs, while also grounding us in the immediate setting.
As the story grinds forward, with our family inching along one car length at a time, Øvredal keeps throwing little hints and feints at us, ratcheting up the tension. The story is completely minimalist, and very little is explicitly told to us. The director and the subtle acting combine to make all of the subtext loom large over the experience. We’re nearly 3/4 through the film before we even get to the tunnel, but its been the elephant in the room the whole time.
The Terror of a Near Miss.
The minimal explanation and the clear terror on the faces of the parents as they try to keep their kids in the dark about the tunnel is tremendously effective. The cinematography is at once drab and expressive: the CG exterior (and what looks like digital matte paintings, a la Mad Max Fury Road) are impersonal yet expressive. We see hundreds of the same car, and the city looks like you CTRL+C, CTRL+V’d one block ad infinitum. The lack of detail is the detail. This is a society crammed full of what the government thinks is identical, fungible pieces. This anonymity, contrasted with the empathy we feel to our protagonists, is where André Øvredal is sinking his claws into the audience.
Win “The Lottery.”
The Tunnel reminds me of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. A rather prosaic setting, instantly recognizable and relatable people, and a sudden twist that turns the whole affair into a ghastly – but all too plausible – scenario. Øvredal does a fantastic job of managing the pace, building tension, and getting telling portrayals of his cast. If I had any doubt that he was a shrewd storyteller with a genius for the mechanics of horror, Tunnel put those to rest. Tunnel is a tremendous little film, highly recommended for your enjoyment.