Sunday, April 12, 2015

Text to Kill (Odyssey Media, Truth and Lies Production, Veritas Productions, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an unusually good thriller on Lifetime, the “world premiere” of something called Text to Kill, originally shot under the considerably more evocative title Truth & Lies. The central character is Taylor (Emily Tennant), a high-school student who’s been raised by her mom Allison (Dina Meyer, who frankly looks way hotter than the girl playing her daughter!), a police detective, as a single parent since the death of Taylor’s father in a car accident. The accident is shown at the beginning of the movie even though its significance doesn’t come clear until about two-thirds of the way through. It seems that Taylor’s dad was to blame for the accident and two other people were also killed in it. After that the film jumps forward two years; Taylor’s former “best friend forever,” Hannah (Stephanie Bennett), has not only cut her dead but has wooed and won Taylor’s former boyfriend, Zach (Matt Mazur, whose head shot shows him with a head of dark hair and an uncanny resemblance to the young Elvis, but in the actual movie is tousled-haired and blond — though come to think of it the real Elvis was blond; the famous jet-black mane was a lifelong dye job!). The intrigue begins when Taylor starts receiving mysterious messages on every computer or Internet-linked device she owns, including her cell phone, threatening her with exposure of her (unlisted) crimes, sins or whatever.

The messages are signed “Truth&Lies” and they gradually get aimed not only at Taylor but at Hannah, Zach, and a couple of new friends Taylor makes after she’s been ostracized by Hannah’s in-crowd: Barb (Sarah Desjardins) and Cody (Keenan Tracey). Cody is one of a group of three campus nerds, headed by Brandon (Kurt Ostlund) and also including a Black kid (the only one we see, though needless to say, this being a Lifetime movie, Allison’s police partner is an avuncular African-American) named Jason (Alex Barima), who we only see lurking sinisterly around Brandon and Cody and wearing a grey hoodie with a few dreadlocks poking around the hood’s front rim. For the first hour or so of the film Taylor is determined to honor the code of omertà that seemingly surrounds all high-school students and not breathe a word of this to the police in general and her mom in particular, but as the circle of recipients widens and the posts grow more graphic — Taylor gets a video of her and Zach having sex in the back of a van; Hannah gets one of her mother, the town slut, getting it on with a strange guy in their home; and Barb, who’s come to realize she’s a Lesbian but hasn’t breathed a word of it to anyone, one of her lip-locking with another girl at a party. Barb is found hanged in her home and by coincidence Allison and her partner, Detective Marco (Kwesi Ameyaw), are assigned to investigate. Allison and Marco deduce that Barb was really murdered and the scene faked to look like suicide, and in the course of their own investigation the kids focus on Brandon as their principal suspect because he’s a genius hacker who’s so good with computers the high school hired him to set up their computer lab. Brandon, it turns out, has wired the entire high school with surveillance cameras so from his secret lair inside the computer lab — a separate room controlled with a combination lock so theoretically only he knows how to get in, though the students learn the combination absurdly easily — he can watch, listen to and otherwise eavesdrop on virtually anything that goes on there, including the women’s locker room. On the evidence of her daughter and the daughter’s friends, Allison and Marco arrest Brandon — only it turns out [spoiler alert!] the real culprit is Cody (well, I should have known — he’s by far the cutest male in the dramatis personae — and indeed the only reason I didn’t guess it was he was I didn’t think writers Jeffrey Barmash, Barbara Fixx and Kley Weber were going to be that obvious about it!).

It turns out that the other two people killed in that accident in the opening few minutes were Cody’s parents, and he concocted an elaborate revenge plot against not only Taylor but her mom as well, first killing the innocent Barb so Taylor would experience what it was like to lose someone she cared about, then dating Taylor so he could lure her to a deserted home (actually where Cody has been living with his aunt, who’s been raising him since his folks were killed but whom we never see), ambush Taylor’s mom Allison when she came to rescue her, and then slowly kill Taylor in order to make her suffer as much as possible. Cody’s plot works to the point where he’s able to surprise Allison, knock her down with a blunt instrument and take her gun, but Taylor figures out a way to escape from Cody’s bondage — she knocks down a clay vase and uses the jagged edge of one of the fragments to saw through the duct tape with which he held her. Cody shoots Allison and Allison falls, but Taylor sneaks up from behind him with another pipe or something (the house seems to be full of them!) and clubs him, and in the fight between them Allison — who wasn’t killed by Taylor’s shot because she was wearing a bulletproof vest (“You should have aimed higher,” she laconically tells him) recovers her gun and shoots Cody dead before Cody can kill Taylor. It’s hard to say what makes Text to Kill so much better than the many other Lifetime thrillers that have had the same basic plot lines, but it helps that the writing committee created characters we understand and care about — even though for the first hour we want to walk into the screen to shake some sense into Taylor and tell her, “Tell your mom already!” — and director George Erschbamer turned in a nice job of suspense direction that keeps us riveted to the screen wondering what’s going to happen next. There are a few of the typical Lifetime “cheats” — like Allison getting the call that Cody is the real killer just after her daughter has got into a car with him — but for the most part this is riveting suspense and it has the advantage of having a theme that rings all too true today. Just this morning the Los Angeles Times published an article about the ubiquity of surveillance cameras and the potential for their abuse ( — something Americans are particularly primed for because we’ve been so extensively warned about potential abuses by the government but we tend to assume that this sort of power in private hands is benign and somehow counterbalanced by the power in other private hands that cancel it out according to “The Market.” Though it’s mainly a thriller, Text to Kill is also a warning of just how easy it is for people to gain access to other people’s secrets, document them visually and use them to cause harm.