Body Cam is a supernatural thriller that plays with its cards too close to its chest. Intentional or not, it causes a conflict within the viewer and glibly reminds us of the all too real abuses of power committed in the real world. If that wasn’t enough it’s a movie which stars Mary J. Blige as a cop.
Malik Vitthal has a great talent for building tension and suspense within a scene. Despite the overall ho hum-ness of Body Cam there are several moments that are quite effective and had me curled up into a ball. These moments make the film overall fractured quality all the more frustrating.
The problem with Body Cam is that it takes entirely too long to reveal what it is actually about. For the majority of the film, we see Blige’s Renee, a Louisiana police officer, trying to figure out what mysterious supernatural force seems to be killing her fellow officers. We learn at the beginning that she was suspended for punching a suspect in the face.
Compound that with the death of Renee’s son who drowned in a neighbor’s pool. Renee is an emotional powder keg, who seems miffed that she was asked to take a leave of absence. We aren’t told until later that the suspect that Renee punched called her a “black bitch”. More troubling is the Rashomon quality, the script by Nicholas McCarthy, and Richmond Riedel choose to tell us about the incident. Her fellow officers say she merely slapped the suspect, whereas she claims she punched him in the face.
Renee’s assault on the suspect is hinted at and flat out talked about in such a way that by the time we learn the suspect was racist it feels an afterthought. It is a single line that is never brought up or discussed again. Had Body Cam done more than just drop a line about why Renee punched the person it would be interesting. As it is, it is a ham-handed attempt to provide “nuance”.
Watching cops blithely and nonchalantly joke about and discuss beating civilians, especially in a time in which mass protests are erupting all over the world, is eerie. I’m just not sure if Vitthal means it to be or if he’s trying to be objective. Body Cam doesn’t have a point of view, or at least, not a strong enough one that we can easily make the call one way or the other.
Vitthal opens the film with the city erupting in protests over police violence. Officer Ganning (Ian Casselberry) goes into a diner only to be served coldly. The police are not very popular right now and Officer Ganning can feel it. The owner of the diner even tries to refuse him service before giving him a free drink and telling him he’s not welcome. So, to some extent, while not explicitly pro-cop, Vitthal is attempting to have us empathize.
In the next scene, Ganning pulls over a green van for not having any plates during a rainstorm. He can’t see inside due to the foggy windows, but he can see a bloody rag. The driver steps out and then something kills Ganning from behind. It is the last we see of Ganning but not of the green van.
Vitthal knows how to frame his shots to get the most tension out of the least action and he is immensely skillful. But McCarthy and Reidel’s script hobbles him. It is not until the third act, do we learn that the specter killing cops, and a few civilians who were standing by, is on a vengeance quest. It seems the owner of the green van, Tanesha Branz (Anika Noni Rose) had a deaf son who was wrongfully murdered by Renee’s fellow officers.
McCarthy and Reidel’s script parcel out the information at the wrong times and either intentionally, or unintentionally, make Blige’s Renee almost as dirty as her fellow officers. While investigating Branz’s house, she turns off her body cam. Her partner, a fresh-faced rookie, Danny (Nat Wolff) wonders out loud if this is ethical. Renee says it’s not but she has to do it.
Renee is a rogue cop. Unfortunately for Body Cam, we are living through a tumultuous and historic point in our country’s history where the notion of a rogue cop is neither interesting or romantic. Blige’s Renee complains constantly about how stressed she is but refuses to take responsibility for her actions.
The conspiracy of a cover-up which begins to unravel unravels too late and without any real foreshadowing. Blige herself, a charismatic performer, nails the silent close-ups but fumbles when it comes to interacting with her fellow officers. It could be that she is not comfortable playing a cop or it could also be her lack of comfort acting. Either way, it makes for an uneven performance in an uneven film.
Body Cam is a film about black cops by a black director but is curiously ambivalent about police and the violence they perpetuate. It hedges its bets so nothing is too controversial. For example, the kid that is gunned down and eventually suffocated so the cops wouldn’t have to call for an ambulance is deaf. He is deaf so the script could give the cops who shot the kid a reason for shooting him.
After all, he was shot because he took off running and wouldn’t turn around when the officer asked. “He’s deaf! That’s why he didn’t turn around.” On the surface, this seems fine and dramatically satisfying. But it doesn’t ring true. We have been inundated with footage of cops attacking, shooting, and beating people for less provocation than simply not obeying orders. Though the scene in which they place a bag over the boy’s head and suffocate him is viscerally chilling, it feels added to make them detestable. As if shooting a child for not stopping wasn’t detestable enough.
But to Vitthal’s credit, where the film lacks a point of view socially or artistically, he makes the violence uncomfortable and disquieting. He is not interested in providing gore for the gorehounds, though there is gore. But he and his cinematographer Pedro Luque eschew exploitation and make the deaths squirm-inducing and palpable.
The scene in the convenient store stands out in particular. With the lights down Luque is able to show us clearly what is happening while still shrouding the action in mystery. Not to mention Luque seems to have mastered one of Hollywood’s most difficult tasks, properly lighting black people. For a comparison watch Proud Mary and notice how the characters are almost literally invisible.
Luque and Vitthal make a good team. Vitthal attempts to work around Blige’s weaknesses as an actor and wisely utilizes her expressive face. There are several moments where they frame her emotionally tortured face, Luque’s camera slowly pushing in as Joseph Bishar’s score comes alive adding another level of tension.
Body Cam has its faults. But it also has scenes such as when Renee and Danny break into Taneesha’s house. Danny slowly walks toward a dresser and pulls open a drawer which unleashes a cloud of cockroaches, his flashlight the only light in the scene. A moment so effective and haunting I couldn’t help but think of Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic. Anytime a scene reminds you of anything del Toro, you’re doing alright.
But for every great tension-filled scene, there are moments like Renee discovering what happened to the boy who was killed. Her partner, Danny, has bodycam footage of the killing, as he was there. After the footage ends, Renee sits quietly afterward and says just two words, “Damn, Danny.”
The scene is meant to be powerful but any emotional heft the scene might have built up is pulverized by the cheesy dialogue. I understand being at a loss for words, after all, she just had the entirety of the story’s expositions dropped into her lap. But there is a gulf of a difference between being at a loss for words and “Damn, Danny”.
Still, Vitthal shows promise as he is not untalented. But he lacks a voice or has yet to find a way to allow us to hear it. I look forward to seeing what else he does for he shows a great talent for utilizing light, shadow, and the weather to set a mood and ambiance. This may seem like a no-brainer but consider how many big-budget Hollywood films can barely even color grade properly much less utilize the basic tools of the craft.
It is impossible to watch Body Cam and not think about Black Lives Matter. The blasé attitude in which black and brown police officers seem to discuss violence as a tool is as horrifying as an unexplained vengeful wraith. Perhaps, that may even be the point, but it is fumbled by the script. All we are left with is a movie about a few bad apples; ignorant of how effected the other apples are.