Replay (2003)

During the past few months, Replay has been something of a sensation in the independent film circuit, presented at the Rosebud, Annapolis, and Washington, DC Independent Festivals. This month, it is screening in the Cannes Marketplace. The excellent word of mouth generated by Replay usually extols its “originality,” and with good reason. Though Replay is clearly inspired by reality shows, The Blair Witch Project, even JFK, it feels fresh and imaginative.

The plot revolves around three masked gunmen who break into the home of gem dealer Seth Collison (Nestor Serrano) to steal the fabled Sophia Diamond, a 33-carat stone valued at over $10 million. They get their hands on the gem, but a gunfight leaves Collison’s security guard and the three thieves dead. And before the police arrive, the precious stone is once again secured in its original safe.

While this plot is rudimentary, its telling is less so. The entire movie unfolds from the perspective of the two police detectives (Fisher Stevens and Michael Buscemi) who analyze the footage from the 21 security cameras retrieved from Collison’s home, on a VCR monitor. The viewer never even sees the detectives, only hears their running commentaries while watching the surveillance footage. (The film is so faithful to this framing device that a blue screen is displayed while the detectives switch tapes.) They suspect that someone close to Collison has masterminded the robbery. The suspects include Collison himself, his girlfriend, the security guard, and two employees present at the time of the break-in. The detectives rewind, pause, and change tapes multiple times as they seek the “truth.”

Like most crime stories, Replay challenges the viewer to try to solve the mystery before the detectives. However, this film goes one step further, restricting the viewer to the detectives’ point of view analyzing the evidence. At the same time, their narration incites the audience to look for clues to solve the crime. Encouraging viewer “participation,” the movie generates a competitive-seeming experience more akin to a videogame than a film.

This structure is both Replay‘s most important asset and most serious liability. Based on a single, few-minutes-long scene, shot by different cameras located in peculiar places inside a room, the setup offers none of film’s usual visual narrative cues — no mobile framing, no editing tricks or lens changes. Similarly, the movie never explores the motivations or state of mind of any character.

This is true even in the case of the detectives, who are the only characters who “develop” in any way. Represented only by their voices, the detectives are typical cop buddies: one is more knowledgeable and responsible, while the other sounds juvenile and immature. Moreover, this delineation is made clear less in their pursuit of the criminal or tape analysis than their sporadic conversations regarding food, women, and dating.

In spite of its many shortcomings, Replay is an intriguing film that knows how to take advantage of current audiences’ fascination with reality shows. By immersing the viewer in the narrative with this nontraditional “first person” perspective, Replay exploits voyeuristic inclinations. It’s an early step toward the inevitable fusion of film and videogames into a single sensorial-cognitive experience.