Written by Angela Bourassa & Adam Pachter, Black bags is directed by Josh Brandon (Houdini and Doyle). Black Bags is a crime thriller. The film starts out by introducing us to Tess, played by Olesya Rulin, (High School Musical). Tess is heavily pregnant and is visiting a pharmacy counter to pick up some pregnancy medication before embarking on a coach trip home. As she gets on the coach, a stranger passes a comment about her black luggage bag. Noticing it’s the same as the stranger’s, Tess simply acknowledges the stranger and gets on the coach. Once Tess has found her seat, the stranger asks if the seat next to her is taken, and Tess officially meets Sara (Laura Vandervoort – See For Me, Bitten). During the coach trip, the two women start to bond, and Tess (in typical crime thriller fashion) overshares information. The mysterious Sara, on the other hand, gives little away other than to explain why she is wearing nice gloves.
It’s an intriguing opening sequence of events. The writers lay out the foundations of the thriller yet to play out, providing a back story for Tess and we learn the reasons why she needs the medication. Its clear that both women have been given distinct personalities, with Tess being the timid country loving one and Sara being the mysterious moody one, clearly supressing thoughts and emotions.
Once off the coach, Tess takes what seems to be an uncomfortably long walk home with her black bag. A few minutes later, Sara appears at the door claiming that their bags had become accidentally switched and asks Tess for her bag back. Tess grabs the bag, and it accidently splits open revealing gruesome contents!
At this point, the writers turn up the pace and add more layers to the thriller via the medium of the good old flash back. We learn a lot more about Sara, what she has done and her motivations. Sara is portrayed to be a victim of an unscrupulous male and has a seriously ill daughter, requiring medical treatment. Bourassa & Pachter then play with the theme of ‘a mother will stop at nothing to protect her daughter’, in turn forcing the audience to blur the lines between supporting a villain that is possibly also a hero. Just when you feel some sympathy with Sara, the story switches into another psychological gear with Sara forcing Tess to become a part of her plan, whilst threatening her unborn baby. Sara is unapologetic for what she is doing, and the cleverness of the writing is that the identity of Sara’s abuser is deliberately vague, this allows the viewers to form their own conclusions. One thing is for certain, you get the sense that Sara is still not who she seems, despite the revelations.
After a further sequence at a disused chemical plant, which has undertones of when Batman killed Jack Napier (seriously what town has a disused chemical plant that still has chemicals in it?) Sara has finally embedded Tess into her scheme, leaving Tess in further emotional turmoil, the country girl persona being torn down. This leads both women to take respite at a local coffee shop where the pair order pie This is where director Brandon applies a little artistic flare with Tess being given boysenberry pie – the imagery obviously designed to resemble the blood and skin of a dead body. Whilst in the café, Sara subjects Tess to yet more psychological torture, with Sara revelling she knows more about Tess than she has previously let on, without explaining why. This leaves the audience asking questions about just how much she knows and how does she know these things?
After walking Tess back to her house, the women exchange some final words before Sara leaves for good. Once back in the house Tess makes a shocking discovery that literally floors her.
The film could have ended at this point, leaving the audience as shocked as Tess. Thinking about it after watching the film, it’s a twist that although sign posted from the opening scenes, conversely, it’s not overtly obvious until the last moments. Thinking about the ramifications of what Tess has just gone through is actually more shocking than the reveal itself!
Nonetheless, the writers haven’t finished with the character development yet, or the story, so the film does that annoying thing…. it carries on when it could have ended. Going on to wrap up couple of subplots with Tess’s husband and mother. Whilst watching the last 20 minutes of the film I kept asking myself why, as it seemed to undo all the tension the writers had worked so hard to build up. All this superfluous story works towards a reunion with Sara five years later (although a title card flashing up saying that would have been useful.) Then it all becomes clear, the writing team had spent the last 20 minutes of the film working towards a character role reversal. Sara now portrayed as the timid one and Tess has now become the more dominant personality. These are scenes making it obvious the trauma that these women have gone through now affects them in diverse ways. Although these scenes conclude the film, tonally they seem inconsistent to the main plot and come across somewhat underdeveloped, although there is a nice call back to boysenberry pie
Successful casting director Ricki Maslar provides her casting expertise on the production, bringing in a selection of credited actors. Top of the bill are Laura Vandervoort, Olesya Rulin, Drew Pollock and Ryan Francis. As this is a female driven film, centred around two characters here is my take on the leads.
Under Josh Brandon’s direction, Vandervoort plays Sara with an intense energy. The opening few scenes on the bus show that Sara does not want to talk, but instead asks questions about Tess. She perfects a steely eyed gaze, appearing to be dead inside emotionally. Her physical performance gives little away about her motivations or mental state. Is she crazy, or unhinged, or maybe she is deliberate and calculating? It’s clear that this is a character that has gone through a recent trauma, and she is just about holding it together. Part of Vandervoort’s skill is that she allows her character to start off by appearing emotionally bereft, letting her line delivery convey the emotion. As the film moves forward, Sara’s personality starts to change and Vandervoort allows her emotions to creep through. In a scene on a veranda swing bench, Sara confesses (mostly) all to Tess and the flash backs allow Vandervoort to show off her action skills. Freed from the emotional box she later puts herself in, Sara is in self-preservation mode and Vandervoort portrays the woman scorned perfectly, swapping from anguish to rage in an instant. The decision to cast Vandervoort as Sara is a good one.
Tess is not a woman you want to be sat next to on a bus – ohh that woman can talk and talk! At first Rulin plays mother-to-be Tess with a naïve innocence; someone who is just happy for a conversation, confessing all to strangers, someone who does not see any threat in the world. Rulin’s performance is a stark contrast to her on screen companion, perfectly playing the big eyed emotionally overt Tess. As the film goes on, Tess must toughen up quickly and whilst I never quite believed that Tess would hurt Sara, I did believe in her instincts to protect her unborn child. Rulin’s strengths are in how she can switch from being timid, to the demands of a full-on tearful breakdown and then swapping her character to a more calculated decision maker. She may start the film as mild mannered, nice girl Tess, but Rulin ensures that persona doesn’t last long and that’s a hard transformation to pull off. Again, spot on casting for the role.
Unusually for an Indie film Black Bags does not seem to rely on stock music, instead bringing in composer Michael Seth Cudd to score the film. Cudd has opted not to go for big brash sounds, instead relying on quieter melodies that compliment the acting on screen. The only thing I noticed is that there is no large-scale orchestra (this is an indie film after all) so the electronic music gives the film an air of late 1990’s TV-Movie, not a bad thing. I have seen indie films with far worse scores and the fact its original compositions needs applauding! The other thing notable is the sound quality. The screener I watched was in Dolby and the rentals are presented in 5.1. The sound mix is really good, dialogue is crisp and clear, the score sits in the background and effects and foley work are spot on. Exactly what you need from this type of production.
Daysan Macom and April Yanda oversee costume design, and they seem to echo Brandon’s light and dark approach. Sara is almost always dressed in dark clothes, a style that can be described as goth Courtney Cox cosplay. Tess on the other hand wears light flowery dresses emphasising her forced country persona. The costumes suit the characters well.
Make-up Department head Candie Renee makes sure that the cast have impeccable skin tones, and this looks great on screen. Oliver Compton handles visual effects and the ‘Item’ in the bag looks visceral whilst a scene at the chemical plant betrays budget constraints, it still works well. A night attack scene is also produced well, it could have become a comedy moment but instead due to a combination of acting skills, effects and direction, draws the viewer in and makes you look away at the same time.
Timothy Riese take a bow sir! Riese heads up the cinematography for Black Bags. His experience working on various TV series such as Air Crash Investigation shines through. The opening sequence of Black Bags is what looks to be a drone shot and I was surprised on how bright and sharp the picture was. I was expecting a soft focus, dimly lit film and got the opposite. Scenes in the bus and at night, which would challenge even the most experienced cinematographer appear perfectly exposed. I also like the use of roving cameras and shots looking down from the ceiling. When characters looked at phones Riese made sure to get over the shoulder shots, these must have taken ages to set up, but the work paid off. I also noticed some great close-up work focused on faces, which make use of a very natural light, this reminded me of Matthew Libatique’s work (Black Swan) as he tends to dislike scenes that look artificially lit.
For an Indie film Black Bags does a lot of things right, it’s a good film, but it doesn’t resonate with me as being a great film. For a few days I couldn’t put my finger on why. The direction is good, the cast are great, the cinematography and sound are some of the best Indie work I’ve seen, then it hit me…. Black Bags is a thriller that explores the dynamic between hero and villain, and how far a mother will go protect her child. It’s a trope that never gets ’Old’. Is Tess a victim or an accomplice? It’s a shame she doesn’t have a ‘Sixth Sense’ about these things. Black Bags is a film that has ‘dead people’ a chemical plant in ‘The Village’ and Sara’s will seems ‘Unbreakable’ and features an ending that may ‘Split’ opinion. One thing’s for certain, writers Angela Bourassa & Adam Pachter build in plot twists but don’t quite manage to reach the heights of the twist master himself – Mr. M Night Shyamalan *.
*boom see what I did there. I put a twist in the review – Smug Face … I’m off for a coffee (insert link) let me know what you think of the review and the film in comments below…
Credits Words Garry
Images Vision Films