Director Mark Schwab’s LGBTQ thriller Crisis Hotline (now streaming on Amazon Prime) tells the story of Simon (Corey Jackson), a man new to his job at the titular location. He expected to be talking people through the worst times of their lives, but after a week on the phones, he’s bored because for the most part, the only people who call are people trying to use the service for phone sex, along with people who “just want to complain about not having boyfriends.”
One night, though, the phone rings and the caller identifies himself as Danny. As Simon and Danny begin to talk, Danny casually reveals that he’s been taking oxy, and that he has a “plan” for the night, but needs to talk to someone first to tell them the story of why he’s about to do what he’s about to do. After some prodding, Simon gets him to admit what, exactly, it is he’s about to do: Danny plans to kill his boyfriend and two others, and then himself.
Crisis Hotline is told primarily in flashback, as Danny narrates for Simon the story of his relationship and how everything fell apart. Danny (Christian Gabriel) was new to Silicon Valley, and shortly after moving there, he met Kyle (Youtuber Pano Tsaklas) on an app. They had your typical courtship: coffee date, movie date, walk in the woods date, and then Danny and Kyle slept together for the first time… Danny’s first time. And then things went downhill.
I’m of two minds about the film as a whole. First things first: I admire Crisis Hotline’s willingness to tackle difficult topics. This film handles things like suicide, rape, seedy pornographers, and rampant crystal meth addiction in the gay community, and for the most part, it does it sensitively, without sensationalizing the subject matter too much. This could have been exploitative and offensive in the wrong hands, so it’s to Schwab’s credit that his script and direction keep the moralizing to a minimum, letting the story just play out.
But… play out it does. The film is only 93 minutes, but it feels much longer. Scenes tend to lag well beyond their expiration date, as characters make important points in conversation, rehash those points, then recap the conversation with someone else… and then Danny and Simon discuss it all over again. It makes it feel like the film is crawling along, like it’s just trying to avoid getting to the inevitable end. The production company here is called High Octane Pictures; high-octane, this film is not.
But, on the other hand, I’m conflicted. The acting in the film is pretty solid, especially Tsaklas as the winsome boyfriend, and Jackson, who doesn’t have much to do except react to a voice on the phone and does it very well. Christian Gabriel’s performance as Danny, on the other hand, is a different situation altogether. He performs almost entirely without affect, his narration mostly flat and monotonous. It’s a strange performance to hang the film on, almost as though the character were a void around which the others all orbit, rather than a fully-realized human being himself. That all sounds like a negative, but actually, it works very well: Danny does see himself as a void, someone who’s been depersonalized by the trauma he’s lived through, someone who can barely remember who he was outside of his relationship to people he now wants to destroy as he was destroyed by them.
In some ways, it’s also the perfect marriage of actor and film; doubtless a result of the low budget, the film is mostly underlit, with flat, uninteresting shot compositions and very few cuts. I mentioned conversations that lag on too long; they perhaps wouldn’t be as noticeable if it weren’t for the fact that, for the most part, scenes are filmed in one long take, lacking closeups or shot coverage to make the editing more dynamic.
The above shot, for example, goes on for three and a half minutes, the audience just watching the characters talking behind the fencing without any closeups or reaction shots or alternate angles. It’s impressive that the actors delivered all of their lines at once, yes, but they’re acting in profile almost the entire time, so we don’t really get a chance to read the performance on their faces, glimpsed as they are through the chainlink, so all we have left is their voices.
Which, again, makes sense thematically, as what we’re really watching is a flashback while, presumably, Danny relates the conversation to Simon on the crisis hotline. I get what the film is going for, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging watch for something that’s supposed to be a “race-against-the-clock” thriller.
I guess my conflicted feelings about the film can be summed up like this: the movie is fine. It’s a well-performed look at the seedy underbelly of gay life, a cautionary tale about believing people from apps before you know them too well in real life. (Although I’m not really sure it has as much to do with the dangers of apps as it thinks it does; someone can be just as much of a mystery to you, lead a life just as filled with unsavory characters, if you meet them in a bar rather than online). I just wish it were a tad more interesting visually… But. As gay-themed thrillers on Amazon Prime go, you could do a whole lot worse.
By Eric Langberg