The real life horror of young African American men being killed without any justice is given a supernatural twist in director Malik Vitthal’s effective if uneven cop thriller. Oscar-nominee Mary J. Blige stars as dedicated LA patrol officer Renee Lomito-Smith. Still grieving for the death of son, we join Renee on her first day back on the job after an eight month enforced leave of absence following her striking a member of the public, an incident that was caught on her regulation police uniform body cam. As the film opens in a Los Angeles bar we learn from a TV news report that a trial that day has resulted in a cop being acquitted of the shooting of an unarmed nineteen year-old black man, resulting in nationwide protests and establishing an atmosphere of discontent and suspicion of the police force, that grounds the film in the real world and ramps up the tension.
Renee is disgruntled to discover that she’s been partnered with the fresh-faced rookie Danny Holledge (Nat Wolff). On their first night out on patrol together they’re called to a crime scene where they come across the strung up and disfigured dead body of a colleague, and close friend of Renee’s, Kevin Ganning (Ian Casselberry). Distorted dash cam footage, that apparently only Renee can see, shows Ganning being inexplicably pulled up into the air, with a female figure just visible in the background. Questioning her sanity she says to her husband (Demetrius Grosse) later in the film, “I feel that there’s a different reality that only I can see”. Haunted by nightmares of her dead son at night, similarly dark visions begin to bleed into her working life as she relentlessly takes on her own unsanctioned investigation into Ganning’s unexplained death.
Mostly set outside at night, sometimes in heavy rain, or inside unlit buildings, cinematographer Pedro Luque’s dark palette helps create a moody, unnerving atmosphere and forces us to look closely, and like Renee, at times question what we think we’ve just seen. The incorporation of various types of camera footage into the visual language of the film works particularly well. As we follow Blige and Wolff’s characters, as well the traditional POV shots we see their individual body cam footage as it’s captured, a conceit that’s layered by the addition of cop car dash cam footage, convenience store security tapes, and cellphone video which Renee becomes obsessed with watching on repeat searching for clues; while aerial drone shots add to the feeling of constant tech surveillance.
Mary J. Blige brings an absorbing combination of the despair and vulnerability of a grieving mother, now dealing the death of her colleague in bizarre circumstances, and the toughness of a seasoned LA cop to the role of Renee. In fact it’s Blige who holds the film together, and Body Cam is at its best when it remains squarely focused on her. Anika Noni Rose also delivers in a small but crucial supporting role as a mysterious hospital worker who is also grieving for her young son, leading to a powerful connection between the two women.
What lets Body Cam down is the screenplay, which after a tight opening becomes slightly unfocused in the final act, and as the film progresses there’s a tendency to spell out what’s happening a little too clearly. There’s also some uninspired dialogue, which threatens to undermined Vitthal’s established tone, but fortunately Blige is able to elevate the words on the page with her performance and makes the most of bad ass lines like “I am a cop first, bitch!” Blige also adds to the soundtrack, reuniting with producer Chucky Thompson for the soulful end credits song Can’t Be Life which touches on themes from the film.
Ultimately Body Cam is an entertaining , suitably gory horror with some original elements and a strong lead performance, it delivers a few good jump scares and sustains the tension and suspense throughout.
By James Kleinmann
Body Cam is released by Paramount on digital for purchase on Tuesday May 19th, for rent on demand Tuesday June 2nd and DVD Tuesday July 14th 2020.