Yedida Gorsetman’s BHFF entry, Empathy Inc., plays like a stripped-down, feature-length, black-and-white episode of Black Mirror, if it had been made by a young Christopher Nolan circa Following or Shane Carruth circa Primer. Though Mark Leidner’s script never gets quite as heady as it seems to want to be, it’s a compellingly stylized story that does a lot with a little, and really emphasizes the human element of identity (and identity theft) with a tightly-focused and minimalist character study.
Joel (Zack Robidas) is a venture capital guy, on top of the world and a rising star in his Silicon Valley firm. When one of his accounts goes belly-up in a scandal, losing a ton of his clients’ money and blacklisting him among his peers and friends, Joel and his wife Jessica (Kathy Searle), an actress, are forced to move back in with Jessica’s parents. This is the ultimate shame, especially as her parents grill the couple on their plans for starting a family and buying that big house across the street, slyly and savagely needling Joel about his ambition and career prospects.
As Joel wallows in his misery, he meets an old friend, Nicolaus (Eric Berryman), who has a proposition: investment into a new tech venture called XVR – “Extreme Virtual Reality” – which allows you to inhabit another person’s mind with the goal of empathizing with their hardships. Despite Jessica’s protests, Joel meets up with Nicolaus and his partner Lester (Jay Klaitz, playing a character that’s amusingly similar to his Grand Theft Auto 5 role, also named Lester) and tries out the system. Immediately, Joel is floored by the immersion on offer. He wakes up in a locked apartment, and it feels like he’s actually in the head of someone else, with complete control over their actions. Joel decides that XVR is his key to turning his life around. He solicits his father-in-law’s pension money and buys in, but the technology is more complicated, and far more immersive, than he ever imagined. And down the rabbit hole we go, a maze where no one is who they seem, and no one can be trusted.
Recent horror hits like Searching, Unfriended: Dark Web, and fellow BHFF entry, CAM, all deal with our anxiety about rapid advancements in technology by effectively amplifying them into horror territory. But those films tend to focus on the technology itself because they have the budget to do so. A low-budget piece like Empathy, Inc. can’t resort to effects to scare you, so it whittles the experience down to what the characters see and feel. It takes some confidence in the script and the performances to strip away that gimmickry, and Empathy, Inc. has that well-earned confidence in spades.
Empathy, Inc. is never content to rest on its laurels, even though there’s more than enough story in the VR conceit. Gorsetman throws an onslaught of bad trouble and misdirection in front of Joel and Jessica, but keeps things impressively restrained before a completely brain-tangling finale.