An admirably audacious work that unfortunately fails to build on the thematic avenues it opens in a satisfactory way
Kai Barry’s debut feature Newcomer takes a generic spy thriller premise and abstracts it almost to the point of non-recognition. It tells the story of Alex, newly recruited as a U.S. specials ops team, selected for his impeccable memory and problem-solving skills. He’s placed on guard duty during his first assignment, and, due to a small error, ends up causing the apparent deaths of his comrades. Finding that his superiors believe that he betrayed them on purpose, he’s forced to go on the run and piece together what really went down – not an easy task, as all he has to help him is a sound recording of the accident.
Especially in the first half, Barry finds lots of innovative ways to stage familiar events. For a start, he portrays the world of espionage in a refreshingly drab and unromantic way; the main focus of attention are the low-level employees, those who are stuck at desk and behind phones and only interact with the action through immaterial means. Real world actions are transformed into abstract data, which is then used to calculate potential outcomes and plans of action. Interiors appear as drab, anonymous offices.
Newcomer is a difficult film to categorise, because – though it borrows several plot elements from countless spy movies before it – it’s not exactly a thriller. For the most part, Barry focuses on reactions rather than actions, leaving most of the major incidents off-screen. A lot of the time we simply look at Alex’s face while listening to significant narrative information, taking in the nuances of his expressions as he responds to minor details. When the central recording is placed within different visual contexts it takes on new meanings and new implications, something that sounds like a falling body on first listening sounds like a closing door in the second. Alex undertakes an odd sort of investigative process which doesn’t involve finding new evidence but obsessively analyzing the same piece of evidence. When we first met him, Alex is meek and transparently out-of-his-depth, and the narrative equates his coming-of-age with self-actualization as an investigator, which places it squarely in that genre. There’s an obligatory love interest, a father-mentor figure who needs to be surpassed, and a series of excessively macho acquaintances.
Falling in line with a tradition of films that range from The Conversation to Blow-Out, Newcomer conflates its protagonist’s investigative process with that of the attentive viewer, highlighting the selective ways in which we consume information, and how we can draw vastly different conclusions based on which particular details we choose to pick, which depends just as much on the viewer as on the intentions of the filmmakers. It also reflects on a culture of hyper-connectivity, the idea that an individual can be easily weeded out by a vast, technology-enabled organization and be rendered more or less totally powerless.
Yet, for all its conceptual ambition, Newcomer is let down by its emotional inertness and its fidelity to a trendy, muted brand of arthouse miserablism. From its minimal dialogue to its hushed aural palette, to its washed-out handheld camera style, every element feels pre-determined to fit an unimaginative, over-calculated aesthetic mould. Characters never register as anything more than stand-ins for ideas, which becomes increasingly problematic as the narrative, in its final third, enters surprisingly – and disappointingly – formulaic territory. At these moments, the film’s lethargic vagueness appears not as a means-to-an-end but at end in itself, employed as window dressing to disguise its essentially pedestrian mechanics.
Newcomer (2015), directed by Kai Barry, is being shown as part of the 2015 Raindance Film Festival. Further information about the film and screening times can be found here.