Who are you if you don’t know who you are? How much does your past, your memories, define your sense of self? Black Box features an inventive script that blends horror and science fiction to build an engaging thriller out of one man’s desperate search for identity. Mamoudou Athie puts in a nuanced performance that constantly evolves over the course of Black Box, as Nolan’s sense of self changes. It’s an intelligent character reading, the complexities adding richness slowly and purposefully to what begins as a one-note role. His relationship with Ava, his precocious young daughter who has taken on a caretaker role during his recovery, is utterly charming and goes a long way towards giving Black Box heart, even if the film often stays too close to the surface.
Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) has suffered a terrible loss. After surviving a car crash that killed his wife and left him severely incapacited, he has to begin the process of getting his memory back. Meanwhile, he scrambles to take care of his young daughter Ava, get re-hired as a photographer at a local newspaper, and basically just stay afloat. So when he’s contacted by a medical study with an experimental treatment that promises to cure his amnesia, the temptation is too much to resist. He undergoes hypnosis from a mysterious doctor who is able to insert him into his subconscious, in the hopes of using that knowledge to rediscover himself. But what memories will be restored to him, and what will they say about who he is as a person?
The concept of having Nolan physically enter his own memories works well within the story. Putting blurred faces on the other people in each distinct memory is deeply unsettling and feels like a throwback to a classic Twilight Zone atmosphere. And if we’re talking about horror, we have to talk about the sound design. Any scary movie worth its mettle has to have visceral, utterly gross sound effects, and the bone-crunching movements of the peculiar creature that haunts his memories are chilling. The dreamscape of Nolan’s memories is so rich with potential, it’s frustrating that Black Box doesn’t take full advantage of it. It seems as though we only ever get tantalizing hints of what lurks in the hidden depths of his subconscious.
The entire film feels somehow unbalanced — we spend far too much time in the real world and not nearly enough wandering through the peeling wallpaper and dusty relics of forgotten memories. Adding to Black Box’s pacing issues is a blisteringly short third act, one that gives its ultimate reveal almost no room to breathe before diving into the conclusion. Interesting ideas are introduced but infrequently capitalized on. Black Box has a lot to say, for example, about the interconnected nature of rage, trauma, and cycles of abuse, yet avoids delving in too deeply. The result is an inventive but disappointingly shallow thriller that largely fails to live up to the promise of its initial premise.
Several secondary characters are ill-used, thinly written cardboard cut-outs who exist solely to move the plot forward. The only other people besides Athie who makes much of an impression are Amanda Christine as Ava, who brings so much repressed anguish to her performance as Nolan’s heartbreakingly young and vulnerable daughter, and Phylicia Rashad (aka Clair Huxtable from The Cosby Show) as Lillian. Rashad brings a new angle to the archetypal mad scientist, as the doctor responsible for Nolan’s bizarre and unsettling neurological treatments: she portrays not just a frenzied genius drunk on the power of her own invention, but a grief-stricken mother desperately clinging to the past. The rest of the cast, however, is simply not given any chances by the script to stand out.
Black Box undeniably has some missed opportunities and fails to explore its more philosophical concepts to any satisfaction. Despite this, it’s still an enjoyable thriller. A multi-faceted performance from Mamoudou Athie and an entirely effective villain in Phylicia Rashad’s wildly unhinged doctor both help Black Box maintain the audience’s interest in its compelling but somewhat underdeveloped narrative.
Welcome to the Blumhouse has four parts “four unsettling films under one roof” – The Lie, Black Box, Evil Eye and Nocturne – all available on Amazon Prime now.