With the Duffer Brothers mysterious series “Stranger Things” currently burning up Netflix, we check in with their underseen debut feature
“’Cause we’re not animals, Zoey.”
Hidden might not be a film that conjures many feelings when it’s brought up. In fact, it might not even be a film that you’ve heard of. That being said, Hidden isn’t a bad movie. It’s not an amazing one, either, but it’s a very promising, controlled debut feature from Matt and Ross Duffer. Hidden is perfectly serviceable and achieves what it sets out to while still doing so in a creative, minimalist manner. Hidden’s lack of reputation and it failing to make an impact on audiences lies more on the fact of the film seeing an extremely limited release than anything to do with its quality. The simple truth is that most people don’t know this film even exists. Now more than ever however, with the Duffers’ release of Stranger Things and such similar “isolation apocalypse” stories becoming increasingly popular, it feels like an especially relevant time to revisit this film and reassess its merits in the current cinematic landscape.
Hidden tells the story of Ray, Claire, and Zoe, a displaced family that have made their way into a fallout shelter, turning it into their surrogate home in order to avoid the dangers that lurks above ground. The film states that they’ve been in this situation for 301 days now, which is certainly a realistic amount of time to be barely surviving in a fallout shelter. The film exhibits its restraint early on by this family talking about their dire reality in believably veiled dialogue (like how the “fire changes people” or the remaining people above ground being known as “breathers”). Hidden never makes it too on-the-nose in regard to what’s happened or is going on either. The picture works more intuitively, letting you try and figure things out on your own while focusing on what’s going on in this fallout shelter; as that’s what’s really important. It’s not unlike how 10 Cloverfield Lane can have a giant monster apocalypse going on outside, but treat the small-scale drama that’s going on inside a bunker as the fascinating focal point. It’s exploring epic storytelling through minimalism, and it’s a great tool when done right.
On the topic of this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane and other recently claustrophobic pictures, it’s natural to explore how Hidden does things differently. In this case the film’s dynamic is made up of a father, mother, and daughter (and her creepy doll), whereas 2015’s Room is simply a mother and son, and Cloverfield offering up a male and female stranger, plus their captor. In all of these pictures, but particularly in Hidden, the family’s morale and bond is fundamental. Alexander Skarsgard does a fantastic job as Ray and keeping his daughter pacified while making the grisly reality that his family’s facing seem not so bad. It’s a testament to the idea of the power of family and how anything can be tolerable if you’re with people who love you.
It’s fascinating to see how the film shows the limited joy and games that are available instances play parallel to many moments from out of Room, albeit Hidden featuring a lot more solitaire. The film then throws additionally tough scenes into the mix, where elements like the dire food situation and the need to assess their final items of nourishment go on. Complications like a rat problem are devastating as the family is literally surviving off the same supplies to live that vermin are. The other films like this show sufficiently stocked environments or situations with replenishing goods. Here the strain is absolutely felt, which makes this grimness all the more powerful. It adds a certain urgency and ticking clock element to either the food running out, or someone needing to go outside and get more. It’s a welcome angle of anxiety that’s absent elsewhere.
Hidden also deals with an efficient set of four rules that are in place to ensure safety in this ecosystem. These films that depict closed off environments usually seem to have some sort of collected caveat, with Room also going in this direction, but 10 Cloverfield Lane having plenty of unspoken obligations that are in place for safety.
Hidden garners a lot of its goodwill but wisely keeping you in darkness, cramped framing, and isolated shots that make you feel just as trapped as the characters. It’s filmmaking that feels reminiscent of Tarantino’s work in the grave sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 2 or some of the work done in Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried. The cinematography keeps you within this “world” and never breaks this illusion, which is crucial and builds suspense, as you’re further put in this family’s shoes. The film would be a whole lot less successful if it took you out of this or informed you as to what was going on, even if the characters are still oblivious.
This creativity is displayed in some other great scenes where the family uses a periscope-like mirror to spy on what’s going on outside. It’s a nice cheat where you’re given a tense, horror-friendly angle on what’s going on outdoors, with you really having no idea what’s going to be stumbled upon, whether it’s a wasteland, zombie, some sort of monster, or nothing at all. Once more, it’s the film’s desire to show off its story in tiny, hidden pieces—obscuring other parts of it at the same time—that’s one of its greatest assets. In spite of the film slowly giving you more information, you never feel like you have the whole picture. It makes it feel as if the biggest mysteries and horrors are living within those blind spots. Something like a rat can have the weight of any invincible boogeyman.
Arguably, some of 10 Cloverfield Lane’s charm comes from the fact that Michelle and Emmett are strangers, get roped into this situation together, and neither of them really know who to trust. A similar approach is taken here, except rather than any of the characters having comrades in a comparable situation within the hole, you’re made to be their de facto inmate. It’s a technique that works quite well. While Room deals with a physical, intermittent captor and 10 Cloverfield Lane also resembling much more of a hostage situation with a clear antagonist, but Hidden is more concerned with a complicated lock situation what must be maintained. Like the mentality of John Goodman’s character, Howard, in 10 Cloverfield Lane, this is a situation of people locking themselves in rather than out. They’re worried about the dangers on the outside, with these locks acting as protection, rather than a means of keeping them captive. They’re not trying to escape. They’re trying to remain—aptly enough—hidden. The Duffers even mine some poignant cinematography out of this idea with climbing this big ladder upwards to reach the exit door is almost framed like ascending into heaven—or pulling yourself from out of Hell—to reach freedom and a new life.
After spending a substantial amount of time wallowing in its claustrophobia, Hidden resorts to brief flashbacks pre-fallout shelter showing the family’s life beforehand. These scenes take a little away from the film’s desired effect, but they’re also very sparingly used and brought in through motivated means, such as flashes during dreams. The flashbacks never become disruptive to the narrative, but it’s a fine line to tow and they do become increasingly indulgent as the film keeps going. Fragments that show scenes like the family initially getting into the shelter probably don’t need to be shown. We can connect these dots on our own. In spite of their ultimately unnecessary nature, they do still help amp up the feeling of paranoia and effectively show an isolating final days as people begin to freak out before everything goes to Hell.
The most effective instance of the flashbacks comes in the form of the scene where the government spontaneously flash bombs the city while everyone watches. The scene captures chaos and confusion so well and it’s even one of the better disaster scenes that I’ve seen in a movie in some time.
Matters escalate in a beautiful manner where before even a half hour of the film has passed a massive fire in the cramped space becomes an inspired complication to send this fragile environment into a landslide. It’s just as thrilling to then see the family need to open their safeguarded exit as quickly as possible when the whole point has been to keep it locked up until now. Once things move above ground it’s not surprising to see that this isn’t a monster situation, but rather a massive government operation dealing with a quarantines and virus outbreak. Admittedly this is an angle that’s been done plenty before, but Hidden’s “less is more” approach again makes this feel different.
Of course, with such a concept heavy movie, as mentioned before things do eventually move outside of the hiding spot with a rather seismic paradigm shift going on in the process. The entire film is predicated on the dangers of the outside and the rules that govern this family to keep them safe, but unsurprisingly, things are quite different on the outside with this new direction fueling much of the film’s final act. The shoot-out and massacre that ensues is marvelously shot and composed, again having you be as clueless and scared as Zoe is in the scene. Being out in the open again is a whole new world for these people and you can feel it in the disorientation present in the chaotic firefight.
It’s a bit of a genuine surprise in the end to see this family get infected and go through everything that they do—sure, they’re still alive, have each other, and are still on their own together, but this new complication almost acts as a manifestation of the struggle they’ve been through. It’s just another new obstacle for them to overcome, but now in just a slightly larger cage to root around. At least they’ve got a bigger community, family, and support center at this point since they’ve found other survivors, but at the same time, this is still very much an ending about struggling to survive.
Hidden might not be a perfect film, but it’s one that plays with a bunch of themes ahead of the curve while still subverting the norm in the process. It’s easy to see how this film could grab M. Night Shyamalan’s attention, spurring him to bring the duo over to the equally unpredictable first season of Wayward Pines. On top of this though, Hidden shows the work of growing filmmakers that are clearly only getting started and hopefully this title won’t remain hidden for much longer.