Leaving D.C. (2012)
I’ve always been a sucker for found footage films. Ever since success of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, this previously unknown genre of movie has exploded into something of a cabin industry for aspiring filmmakers. The medium allows for a compelling, engaging, and even frightening story to be told on a shoestring budget with a skeleton crew of characters. The production values don’t really matter because our expectations are already lowered given the premise that the footage has been cobbled together from mass produced, portable media that are almost as ubiquitous as Masters Degrees.
That doesn’t mean that they are always of lower quality. Cloverfield, Troll Hunter, V/H/S, and Grave Encounters are all proof that you don’t need the backing of a big Hollywood studio to create a visually compelling, high quality movie.
But for every good found footage movie, there are dozens of catastrophic flops at the opposite end of the spectrum – bottom dwelling parasites that feed off the success of fish that don’t belong in the same ocean. Like a lamprey attacking a hamster. These include such disasters as Unaware, Archivo 253, andThe Presence, a movie whose characters were so thoroughly stupid, annoying, and unlikeable that I seriously considered ordering Rosetta Stone – German just so I could travel to Lichtenstein and murder everyone involved in its production without attracting undue attention to myself as a foreigner and non-native speaker.
When I came across Leaving D.C., I almost passed it up, the thumbnail for this movie was of such low quality. The cover photo looked like it might have been snapped with a first generation flip phone and edited on a Commodore 64. If this (click here) was all the marketing effort that was put into the visual click bait, I couldn’t imagine how bad the footage was going to be. To this day, I still don’t know why I gave it a chance.
I needn’t have worried. From the beginning, the movie held promise of something special. The opening scene consists of the main (and really, only) character driving up a country road in the middle of the night looking for a house he had rented. His narration of his journey is relatively mundane – he wonders aloud if he has missed a turn, reassures himself that he must be on the right track since there are still power lines following the road, and talks the viewer through his observations as he eventually tracks the place down. Sound super boring, I know. You’re probably thinking, “What was noteworthy about that? If that’s your idea of gripping commentary or a compelling premise, I can’t imagine what the rest of this snoozer will be like.” But that’s just the thing. The writing in this movie is actually very good for what it is trying to convey: the real-time thought processes of a middle-aged telecommuting professional who has escaped the over stimulating city life of the nation’s capital (hence, the title) and is documenting his first (and last?) days settling in to his new home in the country.
There is something genuinely likeable about the main character. He’s someone we all know. He’s the 40-something coworker who asks you about your weekend in the break room and secretly hopes you’ll reciprocate by being genuinely interested in how his weekend was. He’s not in great shape, but then who in their mid-40s is? He lives a routine existence as a technical writer with the personality to prove it.
It is through the lens of this rather avuncular guide that our story unfolds. The protagonist, Mark Klein, keeps a video journal of his new adventure and sends installments to his OCD-support group back in the city. The whole OCD angle does not ever get much traction and is not worked into the story in any way other than as a vehicle through which our hero’s footage is “found.” Given that most people with middle-of-the-road-OCD live relatively normal lives, this didn’t bother me but it seemed like an unnecessary detail.
Mark gives a walking tour of the inside of his new residence, a sprawling two-story country home that has been on the market for over a year and a half for what we come to learn are ominous circumstances regarding the previous occupants’ mental illness and possible suicide. There’s nothing particularly ominous or unsettling about the house, but on his first foray into the woods around his property, we start to get hints that maybe he is not as secluded as he had imagined.
Anyway, he finds himself awakened in the night by an inhuman scream and upon failing to find what made the sound after an exhaustive internet search, he decides to leave a digital recorder on his windowsill to capture the sound in the event that it happens again.
The tension of the movie builds up as Mark routinely starts each day by downloading the previous night’s recordings onto his computer and going through – in real time – the occasional peaks that occur among the cicadas, crickets, rainfall, planes, and other sounds of nature that comprise his new world.
Mark continues to try to get to the bottom of what is happening on and around his property, going so far as to purchase motion-detector cameras and even inviting a potential crush – a fellow OCD support group member named Claire – to spend a couple of nights with him (GO MARK!! If this secluded country house with a questionable past is rockin’ don’t come a-knockin’!).
Claire’s not much help, but the cameras are able to capture…well…something. It’s not ever really clear what some of the images are, but that’s in keeping with the ambiguities of the audio recordings, so it keeps the plot line moving along as the viewer wonders just what the hell is going on – particularly when the (outside) cameras start taking pictures in places they shouldn’t be. Add to that the introduction of music coming from somewhere in the woods and the sense that this is a more human or humanoid entity increases the apprehension and anticipation.
Now given how much I’ve been pumping this movie up about the character, dialogue, and buildup of tension, you may be wondering why not a higher recommendation? Well, as the movie progressed, I realized that I still didn’t have any real idea of what was going on (as of the last paragraph we were at about minute 65 of the total 77 minute movie length) and I started to get a little panicky. In fact, with each passing minute I found myself pausing the movie to check the time stamp, hoping for some sort of crescendo or climax. But it just didn’t happen. Here’s the sequence of my conversation with the television during the final ten minutes of the movie:
1:06:15 – “Come on, let’s get a move on! Something needs to happen soon!”
1:08:06 – “Seriously, now! We don’t have a hell of a lot of time left.”
1:10:01 – “Yes, yes. I know! Very spooky and mysterious – now get to the point. What
the fuck IS it?!!”
1:11:42 – “Heloooooo???? Movie!!! I’m over here! When are you gonna reveal what’s
1:12:52 – “Jesus FUCK!! You’ve got like four minutes left!”
1:12:59 – “And that doesn’t include credits! AAAAGGGGHHHH!!!”
1:14:04 – “There’s no way any ending is going to be good enough to justify this much of a wait. Please, God. Please, don’t let it suck.”
1:16:06 – “No! No NO NONONONONONONOOOOO!!! Are you fucking kidding me?!!”
1:16:20 – [Stunned silence as credits roll]
Not since No Country For Old Men have I witnessed such an anticlimactic ending. And while NCFOMcould be forgiven because the rest of the movie was so fantastic and provided enough back story and character development to buoy its rather abrupt conclusion, Leaving D.C. does not have that luxury. It lost at least two bloody cleaver ratings for that downer of a finish and I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed by the end, but I refuse to let that take away from my overall positive response prior to that. It had an engaging story line and a likeable protagonist who was thoughtful and deliberate in his approach to understanding his situation without doing anything remarkably stupid or reckless. The tension and mystery built reliably over the course of the film and despite its lack of action, it wasn’t boring.
I may give another movie by Leaving’s director Joshua Criss another shot, but only if I can verify that he has taken some courses in the concept of Meaningful Closure from an accredited film school.
He is the harmless filler material of American life, talking us through his tour of his new house and property with the same candid enthusiasm he would use to narrate his vacation to The Parthenon in Greece or a visit to the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin. If he were a dog, he would be a Golden Retriever who dreamed of being a Bank of America branch manager.
Encountering a cat skull nailed to a tree with some markings carved into the bark above it, he jokingly muses that any disruption in his schedule of sending video feeds might mean that he has ended up nailed to a tree himself. He’s a trooper, this Mark guy. Not blessed with a particularly poignant sense of humor, but a pragmatic optimist. A guy whose glass is half full with something he doesn’t really want – like Diet Mountain Dew, perhaps. Or Sweet Tea.
Three things to note here: (1) There are very few definitive sounds occurring on the recordings. What you hear on them is interpreted by Mark about as well as you yourself could interpret them. They are not supernatural sounds, but it’s unclear what is causing them, which nicely adds to the realism. (2) The sounds occur at roughly the same time each evening, which lends to them a sense of purpose and possibly intelligence. (3) The sounds are all experienced after the fact as none were loud enough to wake our main character and had already occurred hours earlier by the time we are introduced to them. This was one of the more spooky elements of the movie to me because whatever caused the sounds obviously has more than enough time to get closer, survey, plan, and attack undetected if it ever chose to.