The offensive thriller Unfriended opens with a preposterous scene. Someone boots up their laptop to check out a suicide video online. Before watching it, there is this ridiculous warning on the website that hosts it:
“Laura Barns suicide might contain content not suitable for all ages.”
Might contain? A young woman shoots herself in the face despite the very loud concerns of her high school classmates. Who in their right mind would find this “suitable” for any age?
Furthermore, how is it still online? A year has passed and this fucking snuff video (which is poorly filmed and incredibly difficult to hear) remains available to be viewed at any time by anyone. (Despite that ignorant warning, all one has to do is click “continue” to get to the clip.)
Also still posted on the web is an earlier video featuring Laura at an outdoor party. (A link is helpfully attached to the suicide video page.) At first belligerent with a fellow classmate, she eventually gets so drunk she’s later found passed out on the ground somewhere. The camera lingers down below revealing something embarrassing.
Now how is this video still active? Didn’t anybody try to have it removed, as well?
We quickly discover that the person watching both clips is Blaire (Shelley Hennig) who only watches part of the suicide video and then is interrupted while watching the party clip by her shirtless, obnoxious boyfriend Mitch (Moses Storm) who wants to see her shirtless as well.
It takes an awful long time to learn that Blaire and Laura were once as close as sisters. Despite “drifting apart” and Laura being very dead, Blaire remains “friends” with her on Facebook and Skype.
Speaking of Skype, the entirety of Unfriended takes place through webcam chats that are often interrupted by instant messaging. (Yes, we actually watch detestable teenage characters type boring dialogue to each other. How riveting.) Blaire & Mitch’s lame attempts to titillate each other are interrupted by the online arrival of several of their equally boorish friends: Jess (Renee Olstead), Ken (Jacob Wysocki), Adam (Will Peltz), and eventually Val (Courtney Halverson).
Thanks to the constant darting back and forth between audio chatting, instant messaging, web searches, Facebooking, song selecting (How You Lie, Lie, Lie made me laugh) and the ever unwelcome crosstalk (which can sometimes cancel out dialogue), Unfriended requires a lot of pausing and rewinding to fully understand.
Not that you’re ever rewarded for paying close attention. From the beginning, we do not care one lick for any of these thinly sketched, at times deeply annoying scumbags. Considering their soulless personalities, one wonders why anyone else would associate with them.
And then the weirdness begins. Mitch gets a mysterious message from the dead Laura from her still active Facebook account. Blaire gets one, too. (It takes her a little too long to realize Mitch isn’t screwing with her.) Also, someone appears to be observing their group chat on Skype. But we never see their face or hear their voice. Just the odd instant message. Emphasis on odd.
Then comes the shaming. Embarrassing photos of a drunken, stoned Val are posted on Facebook. Despite being deleted shortly thereafter by Jess (who Val accuses of putting them online in the first place), they suddenly resurface on Ken’s page. (He didn’t repost them.) Jess is “slut” shamed by another character who swears they didn’t type that message under their own name. (True.) Blaire is privately sent a couple of gifs that reveal she’s not a virgin. (Mitch thinks she’s losing it to him on prom night.) Already worked up after sparring with Jess over the aforementioned photos, Val dials 911 complaining about the Skype lurker. Then her connection dies. Then she does, as well.
In an unintentionally hilarious scene, Blaire finds a website that reveals that apparently when you communicate with the dead online, you’re fucked. These Internet poltergeists (intergeists?) can possess you, control your movements, read your unsent IMs & Facebook messages you erase, somehow plant a secret camera in your house without your knowledge, hack your chat ID and ultimately force you to kill yourself. But if you confess your sins, maybe you’ll be spared. (Spoiler: you won’t.)
Long story short, the understandably vengeful spirit of Laura (who isn’t exactly a delightful human being either) is the one torturously hounding these dimwitted saps who are powerless not only to escape what’s coming to them (not for a lack of trying it should be noted despite not trying the old block routine) but also from this tedious group chat.
At one point, after helpfully disposing of one particularly irritating character, Laura pushes the survivors to play “Never Have I Ever”. Normally a drinking game, basically each unwilling participant holds up one hand. As they confess to one bad deed after another (before the 10 to 30 second time limit elapses), they lower a finger. The first one to lower all five dies. As the tension rises between all the now bickering characters, after a while Laura doesn’t even need to supply her own questions. They have plenty of their own inquiries to pose, all of which lead to even more terrible revelations.
But of course, Laura doesn’t really play by the rules. For instance, she sends a couple of printer messages to both Adam and Blaire which they can’t reveal. (Maybe you shouldn’t have been so curious, Mitch.) And I don’t remember Jess using up all her fingers.
Right from the start, Unfriended has uncomfortable parallels with the real-life shamings of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, two Canadian teens wrongly violated and hounded by despicable people. As a result, I was immediately turned off by the rather tasteless premise, not to mention the constant “slut” shaming of female characters. (The film is strikingly misogynistic.) When Blaire confesses to Mitch what the audience already knows, his reaction is way over-the-line. Yes, he has every right to be mad at the betrayal but he comes across as the bigger asshole for calling her a “slut”. That is, until Blaire’s final damning secret is revealed.
Stripped to its essence, Unfriended is simply a slow, nasty, unscary, sometimes silly and deeply hypocritical revenge fantasy. Despite what it argues, the way to combat “slut” shaming cyberbullies isn’t to become a “slut” shaming cyberbully yourself.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, December 11, 2015