A debut is a dangerous thing. More than ever, it seems we’re looking for the next best thing: the Great Cinematic Prodigy par excellence. But the last we saw of Xavier Dolan was a cameo in the opening scene of It: Chapter Two. Before that, there was Ana-Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone Tonight and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge – pulsing genre hybrids whose promise has yet to be matched by their directors’ subsequent works.
In this sense, my gripes are perhaps not with the films themselves, but in how distributors tout these titles like fresh, revolutionary pricks on the skin. More recent examples of this include Déa Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning and Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby – technical intrigues which have a suspicious vacuity of purpose.
It is with this trepidation that I approached Jakub Piatek’s Prime Time, which originally premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Sadly it does not deter from the pattern.
New Year’s Eve 1999. Not long before the sirens of the new millennium, lone gunman Sebastian (Corpus Christi’s Bartosz Bielenia) enters the national broadcaster building in Warsaw and takes hostage a narcissistic game show presenter (Magdalena Poplawska) and a meek security guard (Andrzej Klak). In a tense back-and-forth with studio technicians and the police force alike, Sebastian demands to have his “message” broadcast on live television at midnight.
There’s been no shortage of “mass-media dramas” of late, what with the pervasive influence of social media and multi-branching viewing technologies at our fingertips. Prime Time’s slot on Netflix finds company with the streamer likes of other tech-loner thrillers like Nightcrawler, Cam, Searching, and PVT Chat. On the other hand, it also follows the slew of recent retro-themed escapades like Christine and, yes, Joker.
Like the latter examples, it draws its premise from the quiet, occasionally explosive, cinema of Sidney Lumet – think Network meets Dog Day Afternoon. Moreover, it identifies the power of utilising the TV set as a claustrophobic single-location, employing its spatial restraint for the purpose of generating maximum tension and the general register of an anxious awaiting.
But the film lifelessly tries to throw everything in, thematically and stylistically. This in turn limits its ability to explore any one strand in detail. There’s sub-plots involving the tactical conflicts between the police force and a negotiator/rookie duo; the behind-the-scenes politics of the studio producers and impotent channel executive; paper-thin expressions of a class divide between presenter and security guard; and dramatic cues to hint at and remind us of Sebastian’s past.
Contemporaneous news footage also serves as a cutaway from the main premise, punctuating the main action with a parallel to ‘what’s going on’. Archival footage at the beginning portrays the mild Y2K panic, party-goers living it up, and the President’s national message (‘The world belongs to everyone’).
Meanwhile, interviews show disenfranchised youths who contemplate either moving to another country or joining the military. So, yes: like every film set in the past, it is firmly about the present. But you would need only a potato peeler to get at what these asides are going for.
Whereas a Haneke might beat you over the head with the political parallel, or instead restrict it to the occasional TV in the background, Piatek’s middle-ground caution as a storyteller does him no favours. His safety is his undoing, and one wishes for a more head-long dive into satirical territory.
There are no left-field scenes with Ned Beatty professing a giant world conspiracy, or a Rupert Pupkin actually performing on late-night, or a Zbigniew Cybulski to portray the seductive appeal of political terrorism. The only off-kilter stretch we get is a misjudged, clunky sequence in which Sebastian shares a joint with his victims, leading to a brief scene of play on the studio lot, crash zooms and all. Other than that, we are treated to a meagre set of scripted moods which raze nothing and inspire even less.
The film’s style also hints at Piatek’s interest in blending formats, i.e., between its main 35mm presentation and the cropped aspect ratio TV style. But the latter’s lack of prominence and uninspired insertions never come close to Pablo Larrain’s all-encompassing use of the magnetic tape format of his 2012 breakthrough No.
If references abound here in the writing and while you’re watching the film, it is to the film’s credit then that Piatek has supplied a cinematic literacy to his first feature, just as the filmmakers mentioned at the start of this article.
But it also means that he has failed to find conviction in his own voice. Regarding the performances, like the film as a whole, Piatek’s authority over the actors is as affectless as Sebastian trying to steer events his way. He has no true hold over his hostages – they will do as they’re told but it will all come to nothing. Once the grip loosens, they will get away and everything will fall apart and be revealed as no great mystery.
So overall, Prime Time is a decent stitch-together of technical exercises, if not an alluring but empty box of ideas. And that’s fine, this is just a debut. A warm-up picture for a future vision – more refined, rigorous, and unafraid.