The internet, and particularly communities on the internet, can be a distinct force for good for people. It allows communication, especially vital in current events, sharing interests, learning, and creative expression. Of course, there is a darker side. Alongside dangers in the form of sexual predators and fraudsters, one fifth of all bullying now occurs on social media with victims of cyberbullying twice as likely to self-harm. What can be even more toxic though is someone destroying your life through a veneer of being your friend.
Five London teenagers; William (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Eva (Imogen Poots), Emily (Hannah Murray), Mo (Daniel Kaluuya) and Jim (Matthew Beard) meet in an online chatroom of William’s creation and become fast friends, but William has his own agenda; to manipulate their lives as a distraction from his own issues. After Jim confesses to the group that he suffers from depression, William’s plans take on a truly sinister turn, and there is a question of whether the rest of the group can help Jim before tragedy strikes.
Chatroom is a movie with a very curious pedigree. Made in 2010 it was written by Enda Walsh based on his own play of the same name, directed by Hideo Nakata who is most well-known for directing the original Ring, and stars a cast of young British actors like Taylor-Johnson, Kaluuya, Poots, Murray, Beard, and even a brief appearance from Richard Madden, some of whom would after this become household familiars. It even premiered at 2010’s Cannes Film Festival. So why then does it not quite work? I think the answer is that whilst the film has several things which could carry it, the basic foundation is just too insubstantial.
One of the biggest things which is successful in this film is the way it portrays ‘the internet’. We’ve seen the internet visualised in media as a magical technological wonderland, but here it’s more akin to a Shining-esque hotel corridor of rooms representing webpages and chatrooms, like the one the teens meet in. You get a sense of activity all around, general and seedy, even when it is just teens sitting on chairs and talking. There’s also a distinct choice of the cyber world being a far more vibrant place than the everyday lives that the group inhabit, especially in terms of the colour palette that speaks to the escapism that the internet can offer.
This is a grey and dreary London we see here and it is very appropriate for the film. Chatroom deals with some very heavy and difficult subject matters, particularly for anybody who has experienced depression or dealt with suicidal thoughts. To see Jim suffer at the hands of William’s faux friendship is troubling and uncomfortable to watch, because it is easy to see how something very similar could happen in real life.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Will is a character as interesting as he is detestable. His main motivation for trying to push Jim over the edge is related to his own self-loathing, and a family life which revolves around his much older and more together brother. You get a sense that William’s darker personality online is an expression of him pushing his negative psychological state outwards into the world rather than turning it inwards and onto himself - self-harming is something he has experiences in the past. He wants to control others in the absence of having control over his own life, the more put together and amicable version we see of him online being a lie. On the other side of that coin is Matthew Beard’s Jim who is so painfully vulnerable that you can’t help but feel for him as he’s caught in William’s malicious web.
So why then did it leave me feeling so cold? It’s not the direction, as whilst Nakata’s filmmaking in recent years has never hit the atmospheric heights of Ring or Dark Water - although I would say that The Complex from 2013 is a competent little ghost story even if it doesn’t linger - this film is well made from a technical standpoint and you get a great sense of the mood he’s going for. I think that ultimately the problem lies in the writing, as despite those well-crafted visuals and the compelling set-up the film feels very uneven. Part of it may be in Chatroom’s origins as a play, as a few of the early “chat” scenes have a very theatrical delivery. Maybe the intention was to reflect how differently people talk online to more naturally in real life, but it doesn’t come across like that onscreen and instead feels forced. There’s also the fact that outside of William and Jim, none of the characters we meet or their stories matter to the overall plot.
Eva, who initially joins in with William’s mind games, seems to be experiencing a teenage malaise over her potential modelling career, but other than a vague idea of her hating her stuck up “friends” we don’t understand why. Emily apparently lives in a very emotionally distant family (not that we get to see any of that) and is encouraged by William and Eva to stage vandalising attacks on her family to bring them closer together. We do get to see the effect of that, but then it goes nowhere. Do her parents find out? Does she come clean? What happens then? No idea.
Likewise, Mo is little served. He confides in William that he has sexual feelings for his best friend’s eleven-year-old sister, William tells him to come clean, Mo is then beaten up by said friend, and then… nothing. He shows up again for the climax, but we just see and hear nothing of Mo until then with Kaluuya missing for what feels like a quarter of the movie. Maybe some of these things are made for the stage, only getting glimpses of what’s going on and just being referred to, but it just simply doesn’t work in a film. You could remove the majority of the cast and miss absolutely nothing. It’s a shame, because all three actors are capable of better, and we know this in the work they’ve created since this, but they don’t get the material to really work their magic here.
It all means that once Chatroom reaches its conclusion you have an end to the story broadly speaking, but nothing feels resolved. All the characters just leave with no indication of their mindset or feelings going forward, and so we leave with unanswered questions and an empty feeling of having seen something that could have been interesting but isn’t. Possibly worth watching for fans of Aaron Taylor-Johnson or compelling onscreen sociopaths, but for most this will be #disappointing.
Signature Entertainment presents Chatroom on Amazon Prime July 3rd