11 11 11 is a perfect example of what can go wrong when a filmmaker holds so steadfastly to a central concept that he forgets to let the film breathe. The story, the characters, and any nuance the film might have had are strangled out by a myopic adherence to a conceit far less rewarding than the simple pleasure of a story well told.
Often the major studios are rightfully accused of “vacuuming out the air”, meaning they often don’t allow for character beats, directorial flourishes or even an assured editorial hand. Writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw 2-4, Repo! The Genetic Opera), working independently, has vacuumed out his entire movie. Because the plot is centered around the date 11-11-11, the words “11-11” have to be mentioned (or seen) in almost every single scene. Which is fine, a lot of religious horror is built on that kind of ominous thematic threading. But it becomes a problem when the characters say the exact same thing about themselves or their worldview, with only slight variation, over and over and over again.
The film starts with bestselling “dime store” thriller writer Joseph Crone (Timothy Gibbs) in the throes of an existential crisis after a deranged fan has set his apartment ablaze, recreating an event in one of his books, killing his wife and young son. To be fair, I actually thought this was a nice touch since much of the movie addresses the Bible – another book that deranged fans often try to reenact. Joseph attends group meetings for grief and loss also frequented by the young and attractive Sadie (Wendy Glenn). In one of the purest examples of the movie having no patience to explain or set up characters, she surprises him at his car and gives him a leather bound moleskine notebook despite seemingly having never met or spoken with him. The plot requires her to do this with only the explanation, (paraphrasing) “I heard you like to write in notebooks”. He thanks her and drives off, immediately getting into a huge car accident. In the hospital he’s told that the other driver died, but he has no injuries at all. Joseph is pretty pissed about this, explaining that he would have no problem with dying and that his “life has no purpose”. He then hears that his estranged father is dying and jets off to Spain to be with him and paraplegic preacher brother, Samuel (Michael Landes). For the next few days leading up to 11-11-11 Joseph, Samuel and their firecracker of a maid engage in theology conversation (and the occasional surveillance tape viewing).
“My life has no purpose”. “I don’t believe in God”. “I’m not much for sermons”. You might want to get used to that. Because it’s the beginning and end of every scene for 90% of the film. Sure it’s necessary for Joseph’s arc to start there – but it stays there relentlessly until the movie needs it to change at the last minute. We keep learning over and over again something that was established in voiceover at the beginning of the film – Joseph doesn’t believe in God. Samuel, of course, does. So they have the same conversation over and over again until, as they say, sh*t gets real.
By keeping things so static, Bousman renders his film completely inert. It’s not often that I wish a somewhat boring film would be longer, but that’s kind of the case here. If things were allowed to breathe, if characters were allowed to be more than just staunch mouthpieces for conflicting ideologies – I might have had something to latch on to. But it’s the opposite here, every scene is edited within an inch of its life as though Bousman is afraid of us getting bored. In doing so he removes any chance of relating to the characters. This narratively utilitarian approach might have been revelatory in a film where something truly happened in each scene, but as it is it merely exposes all the water treading and just how on the nose almost every single line of dialogue is.
The performances are mostly flat and affectless, so much so that I began to reason that Bousman’s militant insistence on cutting everything within an inch of its life could be his way of circumventing his overall unhappiness with the cast. But it’s a weird circular thought on my behalf because of course there’s not much any actor can do with dialogue this alien and expository. Sample exchange:
Joseph: “Today is 11/11/11”.
Sadie: “I know, they were talking about it on the radio”.
Nevermind that Sadie has flown to Spain to see this guy because he’s freaking out over 11/11/11. And when Joseph finally completes his arc, it makes no sense. Near the end of the film he gives a video confessional that utterly undercuts his established character, which would be fine but the film provides him no motivation.
In a movie with problems this big, normally huge things like dialogue and performance seem like nitpicking. It all comes down to story. If every scene has the same static objective and if 90% of your scenes end with your characters in the same emotional and narrative place with which they began – you don’t have much of a movie.