The new film from the wittily named company Cinephobia Releasing is the wittily titled The Latent Image, which is a witty and intelligent, if modest, thriller.
Mild-mannered Ben has retreated to a secluded cabin to finally write his mystery novel. He’s posted on the wall clippings of missing men, connected by colored thread like at a police crime investigation. The cabin is no shack. Its furniture is expensive; it has thermal-locking sliding glass doors, opening to the dead of night outside. Its stairway is festooned with Christmas lights. The impression is that the action is set in the past until events prove otherwise.
Ben has a penchant for vintage technology. He's all analogue: he composes on a manual typewriter and eschews the internet. He plays home movies with a reel-to-reel projector. When filming with a Super-8 camera, he's asked, "Don't you use anything modern?" to which he replies, "This will last forever." Ben is alone with his thoughts—including that he's also come here for time off from his significant other—when on a stormy night a mysterious stranger appears like a mirage inside the cabin.
Identified only as The Man, the stranger is a tall, surly, longhaired, turtlenecked fantasy. He couldn't be better if Ben made him up. Besides his swagger, this guy brings a host of mysteries, including bruised knuckles and a trunkful of God-knows-what. He insinuates himself into Ben's life and creative process. Ben's given to hallucinations (he frequently confers with Jamie, the lover from whom he absconded, though nobody's there), and we wonder if The Man isn't a similar figment of his imagination. The Man offers no explanation for his presence and makes seemingly unreasonable demands on Ben's attention. The whole thing comes to a boil when the pair act out a "hypothetical" murder, as a way of patching up the plot holes in Ben's book.
To reveal more would risk spoilers. The Latent Image is a sophisticated cat-and-mouse scenario that keeps us guessing. Though Hitchcock naturally comes to mind, writer/director Alexander McGregor Birrell is confident enough to keep it simple and straightforward. He has faith in his actors (it's essentially a two-man show), and the flashiest he gets is a motif of rack-focus shots, stressing the play between the foreground and background, which underscores his premise: who's making up whom?
Mr. Birrell is a London-based filmmaker. The Latent Image is his first film, based on his 2019 short. His actors have a mostly theater background: Joshua Tonks as Ben (who's credited with co-writing the story); Jay Clift as The Man (whose heroic features account for TV roles in DC's Legends of Tomorrow, Batwoman, and Supergirl); and William Tippery as the apparitional Jamie. Director of Photography Michael Elias Thomas maintains a dark, spectral mood, and music by Jack Hughes and Alex Gregson provides an ominous but unobtrusive bed for the proceedings.
It's rare to come upon so unpretentious and clever an effort, especially when dealing a subject like with homicidal psychology. Fans of films like The Silent Partner (1978) and The Perfect Host (2010) will find much to savor in The Latent Image.
The Latent Image. Written and directed by Alexander McGregor Birrell. 2022. Cinephobia Releasing. 83 minutes.