stars out of 5
Timely satire that hits its target with deadly accuracy – a jet-black comedy that is both shocking and thought-provoking, this is destined to be one of the films of the year.
The release of Series 7 : The Contenders couldn’t have come at a better
time, landing on our shores slap bang in the middle of both Survivor and Big Brother 2 – two TV shows without which Series 7 couldn’t exist, although, amazingly, the film actually predates them both, as the script was written back in 1997. Written and directed by first-time director Daniel Minahan, Series 7 is that rare thing: a black comedy that works as both thought-provoking satire and edge-of-your-seat entertainment.
The film is set up as the final three episodes in a ‘marathon’ of the
seventh series of a TV show called "The Contenders". As it opens, we are quickly filled in on how the programme works: the show comes to a particular town and the contestants are chosen by lottery - seemingly at random, although there are hints that the contenders have actually volunteered and this is one of several questions that Minahan chooses to leave unanswered.
Then, on camera, masked "operatives" from the show break into the contender’s homes, assign them a gun and a cameraman and leave them to get on with it. Crucially, we are never told what they’re actually playing for – there are hints that the producers are somehow forcing the contenders to play and the voiceover occasionally tells us that "the prize is the only one that counts: your life", but again, this raises questions that the film tantalisingly refuses to answer.
The ‘Contenders’ for Series 7 include: "reigning champion" Dawn Lagarto
(Brooke Smith, who may be familiar as the girl in the pit in Silence of the Lambs), eight months pregnant with "ten kills in two previous tours", returning to her home town for series 7; Connie, an emergency nurse with a strong religious faith; Lindsay, an 18 year-old girl with over-bearing parents ("Go kill him, honey!"); Franklin, an elderly conspiracy-theorist; Tony, an unemployed husband and father whose family is falling apart; and Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), an artist with testicular cancer who just happens to be Dawn’s old high-school boyfriend…
The film is shot using all the conventions of TV reality shows, including to-camera interviews, a deep, booming voiceover, rapid editing, graphics and ‘dramatic reconstructions’, which are both amusing and at the same time, creepily paranoia-inducing. As such, it’s clear that the film would have a much greater impact if it premiered on TV (it was originally pitched as a ‘War of the Worlds’-type TV hoax) and indeed, the publicity in this country has cleverly marketed it as being "too explicit for TV – see it only in cinemas", placing box ads on TV pages and so on.
There’s a lot of humour in the film, thanks to a razor-sharp script and a set of brilliantly observed performances from a superb cast. Brooke Smith, in particular, is excellent as Dawn, managing to horrify you and yet make you admire and pity her simultaneously – if there’s any justice Series 7 will prove to be her Big Break.
Ultimately, audiences may find all the unanswered questions frustrating, yet they definitely give the programme an extra edge of uncertainty and paranoia that works in its favour, and this is explicitly played upon within the film itself. In the end, you’ll come out of the cinema wondering whether you’d watch The Contenders if it actually existed on TV, and you may get the chance, as Minahan intends to expand the idea into ‘Series 8’ for television.
In short, this is a brilliant idea, superbly written, directed and acted and darkly funny with it. Ignore Pearl Harbour and see this instead – you’ll be glad you did. Highly recommended.