David and Amy Fox (Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale) are an unhappy couple taking a road trip together before they finalize their divorce plans. When their car breaks down on a secluded country road, the couple takes up residence at the Pinewood Motel, run by the unnerving Mason (Frank Whaley). Once settled in their ramshackle room, David and Amy determine their car troubles were no accident, and this ominous motel room might cost them their lives.
Director Nimrod Antal made quite a splash on the international cinema scene years back with the brooding "Kontroll." A stylish thriller set in the Hungarian subway system, Antal showed imagination and ease with unsettling images. "Vacancy" ushers Antal into the Hollywood system and either through luck or talent (I'm betting on the latter), he's ducked under many of the traps laid for thriller filmmakers to create a picture that's heavy on frightening might and menace, and unsettlingly light on stupidity.
"Vacancy" details the art of selling terror, literally through the disturbing snuff film plot and artistically in the creeping sense of dread that informs every frame. The screenplay by Mark L. Smith presents a simplistic blueprint for the nightmare and Antal runs away with the potential, breaking down the location and personalities to best exploit the evil of the evening.
It's an astoundingly competent directorial job that spins the viewer's head with its suspense dexterity and endless appetite for punishment. Not overwhelmingly gory, Antal instead reaches for nimble stabs at sadism for his frights, getting inside the mind while also dishing out the action. "Vacancy" is an undoubtedly upsetting picture, but I never felt it crossed over into anger. Antal wants to distress his audience through dark corners of the night, a group of men who kill not only for fun but for profit, and the inherent ick of a backwoods motel; the director executing his vision with a crystalline death blow. Some might view it as barbaric, but I see the picture as wildly successful in groping thriller conventions with a newfound sense of muscle.
A crucial component of Antal's frontal assault is the masterful cinematography by Andrzej Sekula ("Pulp Fiction," "Hackers"). Exploring unusual compositions and gloomy lighting, Sekula tightens the film even further with his sneaky photography. The camera is held tight on the characters to best extract the nightmare of the night, using harsh whites and oozy neon lighting as a source of hope and fear for David and Amy as they navigate their options for escape.
Intelligence, or the frayed strands of it in the midst of a panic attack, also plays a vital part to the freshness of "Vacancy." This is not a genre known for clear-thinking characters, yet David, when it dawns on him that trouble is thundering near, turns into a crafty fellow. The character is written with a head on his shoulders, always thinking two steps ahead of the killers (for better or worse), trying to convince his wife that he might be a terrible husband, but when maniacs are swarming a motel, he knows a thing or two about surviving the night. Or, at the very least, outsmarting country dingbats while using their labyrinthine lair (foreshadowed in the gorgeous, Saul Bass-inspired opening titles) to his advantage.
When the finale comes, the surprises start to settle in. No twist ending? No last-minute jolts? No obligatory 10-minute cool off period to wind down the audience? "Vacancy" just ends, and with a great degree of satisfaction. Nevertheless, when the story has resolved itself with bruising and blood, the picture has the good sense to bolt for the exit. "Vacancy" is bracing, blissfully succinct, and rip-the-armrest-off terrifying; it's worth every blood-smeared minute of your time.