The early passages of Alex Karpovsky's Rubberneck have an unpredictability that effectively puts the entire picture up for grabs. Paul (Karpovsky), a mild-mannered researcher, strikes up a chat with pretty new lab tech Danielle (Jaime Ray Newman) at their research and development laboratory's Christmas party. They go home together, in a scene of velvety sensuality. But the next night, Paul presses her for a second date, and it goes quietly awry--in that particularly icky way where one person keeps pushing, and can't let things be.
Eight months pass. That aborted second date was clearly the end of their brief romantic involvement, but Paul is still hung up on her, and the more time the film spends with him, the more painfully obvious it becomes that there is something just a little bit off about the guy. His spurned interest veers toward obsession, and he starts to push boundaries, in a calm, even, and ever more worrying manner. At first, you just shake your head a lot. But it becomes more and more obvious exactly how unbalanced he is, and what he's capable of.
These scenes, of steadily mounting tension and slow-burn psychological intensity, are the film's strongest. Karpovsky (familiar from Girls and the outstanding TFF selection Supporting Characters) stars, directs, and co-writes, and it's easy to understand why he took such an active role in the picture's creation: this is the kind of quietly disturbed character that most actors would give their eye-teeth to play. It's a mentally and physically challenging piece of work, in which the actor must constantly reveal just enough but no more, and he is eerily convincing--whether doing pain, rage, or guilt. And the way he physicalizes the character's breaking point (he takes his glasses off and puts them back on in a frighteningly deliberate manner) is electrifying.
Trouble is, that's also the point at which the movie begins to lose its bearings. It's almost that precise moment, in fact, as the score by James Lavino (which has, to that point, been a perfectly serviceable Cliff Martinez knock-off) telegraphs the following turn of events too early, and too clearly. The third act is by no means a washout--there are still tense scenes and jittery moments, along with some welcome complicating of audience identification and sympathy.
The problem, when you get right down to it, is that it turns into a Secret In The Basement Movie, in which a long-hidden wound, a deep and dark infliction, provides an easy explanation (and an out) for actions that are far more compelling when left anonymous. Rubberneck is a decidedly modern film with regards to style and execution, and the degree to which it trusts an audience to fly blind alongside it. But the notion of the Freudian solution for a character's psychosis is old-fashioned in the worst way; there's a reason everybody loathes the Dr. Richmond scene in Psycho so much.
That said, there's still much to applaud here: the crisp cinematography, the naturalistic dialogue, and the many fine performances. As many actor/directors do, Karpovsky gets intelligent and well-shaded work out of his cast, particularly Newman as Paul's jilter and a fascinating actor named Marianna Bassham (who has something like five lines, yet puts across exactly who she is and what she's going through--that performance is a model of economy). It's a tight, well-made character study, though its surrender to convention in the closing passages is a real letdown.