Many people’s minds gravitate to their families during this time of the year. Aside from being together (which is difficult for some right now), the matriarch or patriarch is thinking about keeping the house crew safe and comfortable in their warm beds. Unlike the Garrity family in this week’s other major movie, Greenland, the Sharpes (mostly the father) aren’t coping with a planet-killing comet. His concerns stem from the possibility of a nighttime invasion of sneaky invaders. It’s a shame he doesn’t know this quote from one of the founding fathers. Ben Franklin. “Those who would trade up fundamental Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Still, it’s unlikely he considered that his worries might encourage his whole “unit” to submit to a bad impulse.
The story begins (well actually after a horrible scene involving homicide and suicide) with the wholesome, seemingly happy Sharpe family outside their two-story luxury house on a lovely day. Mom Christine (Sonya Walger) is attempting to get her eldest daughter, sixteen-year-old Angela (Abbi Ford), and her two boys, fourteen-year-old Mike (Nicholas Danner) and eight-year-old Sam, on the road for a day trip (Oscar Debler). Dad Henry (Grant Bowler) is unable to accompany them this time. Tonight is a special “one-on-one” meal with his employer (perhaps a promotion). As he returns to the house, he hears a knock at the door. It’s a middle-aged stranger dressed solemnly in a black suit and hat.
He identifies himself as Lou Branch (Paul Sorvino) and asks to talk about his home’s security system. Branch says it’s cutting-edge technology, but Henry has to get going and grabs his card after the “pitch.” Dinner with his employer, Mr. Reilly (Dan Lauria), comes to a sudden end as the true motive for the evening is revealed. It appears that the firm has lost a significant amount of money due to a poor investment made for their largest client. Reilly and the board agreed that someone had to bear the brunt of the responsibility. So despite the offer of a large “under the table” pay-off for quiet, Henry rushes out in rage.
He’s so furious that he doesn’t notice the bunch of thugs barging in as he opens his front door. They inflict a brutal beating on Henry, causing him to awaken in the hospital. This motivates him to join Branch’s security firm. He, his wife, their children, and their live-in nanny/maid/cook Lucia (Stephanie Cayo) have microchips implanted under their skin, near their permanent ankle “bracelets” that communicate with the many mounted wall monitors in residence. Things gradually return to normal, but only for a short time.
Sam now squashes ants for enjoyment, while Mike escapes into his violent “single shooter” video games to deal with many school bullies. Angela, on the other hand, is getting tattoos and stealing. Christine (now the primary breadwinner) is having an office affair, while Henry is enraged as he begins his at-home sales job (maybe Lucia now digs this about him). Hmmm…could Branch’s “tech” be more than just home security?
We can practically feel the cast’s forced effort to transcend this turgid banal story of a self-destructing family unit. Bowler attempts to go “with the flow” of his erratic temperament. First, he has to play the laid-back 80s TV dad (cue the laugh track), then he has to practically foam at the mouth at the big job dinner. He’s a touch disoriented after the pounding (head damage is implied), but he eases into phone sales before lashing out for no apparent reason. Then Bowler appears to be returning to a shining riff as the punishing “Daddy-monster.” He tries to sell it, but it makes no sense. Similarly, Walger (as Penny from TV’s “Lost” Christine ) ‘s is the ideal working parent. Still, her professional exec image evolves into a spiteful “Queen B,” who is envious of her flirtatious aide and is overly susceptible to the “company creep.”
Angela is introduced as the cute bashful gal longing to be the knock-out that captures the attention of the “school hunk.” Still, her character evolves into one that would appear too much of a clichéd adolescent “B-girl” in a Poison Ivy remake. Danner’s Mike has the frightened aspect of the ideal “patsy” for the school predator. Still, there’s no motive for his attempts to bribe the bully before eventually acting on his video game alter ego. And Debler’s Sam has nothing to do until he is the child in jeopardy at the end of the movie.
Oh, 15 minutes in, we meet the unofficial family member, Cayo, who plays a caretaker who looks to have walked straight off the catwalk of a fashion show. She appears to be solely there to entice dad, as we are perplexed by her aggressive chase of him while he rests on the couch. Sorvino, the film’s “celebrity,” tries to bring a dark spirit to Branch but comes out as a mix between Willy Loman and a frightening 1930s school principal (with a touch of Mitchum from Night of the Hunter). He appears to be dangerously standing on Henry’s doorstep, making it difficult to understand why he invests so much confidence in this solemn sad-eyed salesperson. To make things worse and more “artistic,” James Landry Hebert (the giggly tire deflator in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) appears in several disturbing minor parts, generally leering at Angela.
Director Michelle Danner attempts to squeeze some drama from Jason Chase Tyrrell’s formulaic writing. Still, the picture is frequently just “spinning its wheels” until we can see the giant “surprise” conclusion coming from miles away. Perhaps they were looking for a more “edgy” take on The Shining or American Beauty. Still, it feels like an extended episode of a second-tier TV anthology like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or “Tales of the Unexpected.” The film aspires to startle and shock but instead prefers to wallow in sloppy ugliness.