There's an almost irresistible draw to a self-contained film project. Directors like not having to move around and less things to organize, as well as the challenge of making an englosed space interesting. Actors are interested in something that almost exclusively showcases their talents, without special effects and whatnot to draw the spotlight away, like stage acting. And producers like it because it's affordable and simple: a huge potential return on a minimal investment. Sympathy wants to be one of those movies, but there are a handful of frayed edges that block the movie from living up to its full potential.
The DVD has a Variety quote plastered on it that calls the film "a well-guided female empowerment missile", but Sympathy is another in a long line of films where a screenwriter mistakes the act of throwing a few sexual twists into a character's method of manipulation with female empowerment. Writing a tough, wise-cracking, genderless character and calling it a woman isn't really the same as writing a good female character, plus there's also the fact that writer Arik Martin has his emotional states all jumbled up at first. As the movie begins, Sara is collected when her captors are exasperated, and terrified in all the moments anyone trying to prove their steeliness would try and keep a straight face. In the first ten minutes, perhaps as a catalyst for everything that follows, Trip shoots her in the shoulder, which barely fazes her aside from her annoyance, then cries in outright terror when threatened with the gun again even though she's been swallowing the pain of the first gunshot for the past 30 minutes.
Boucher is next on the food chain, and he's solid, although every once in awhile you get the hint that he as an actor is maybe relishing being the center of attention so much it's detracting from his performance, like he's delivering Shakespeare or something. The character is reasonably well-written -- know-it-alls can come off as too smart, as if they read the movie's screenplay, but Dennis' intelligence is all reasonable and logical -- and he knows how to play the low-key moments as well as the big ones. In particular, he's funny, landing a smattering of chuckles and at least one laugh-out-loud moment, which is a nice surprise for a film like this (when Trip tells him he'll never pick through the military-grade handcuffs Sara is chained to the bed with, Dennis' reply is perfect). Pritchard, meanwhile, looks like he's getting screwed over, locked in a bathroom for the first half of the movie and asked to handle dramatic outbursts that are out of his range, but eventually he gets his chance to shine.
The film tries to right the Sara character in the third act, and she does particularly gruesome to Trip that blew my mind a little (I can honestly say I've never seen that happen in another movie). Unfortunately, while the film has several solid twists, the last five minutes are a painful letdown, in which a character makes a dumb mistake and fails to rectify it despite ample opportunity during the conversation that follows. The turn of events pushes the film from engaging to preachy, and if there's anything I hate in my horror/thrillers, it's the idea that the filmmakers are sitting a room somewhere patting themselves on the back for making a movie with a Message. Sympathy is a surprising, solid effort through the majority of its runtime, but the ending summons more pity than anything.
The Video, and Audio
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, on the other hand, is kind of terrible. Most of the issues can probably be chalked up to poor recording during the original filming, but everyone talks in low voices and Pritchard is locked in an echoey bathroom, which makes some of the dialogue indistinguishable. Music is light and there's almost no soundscape to speak of, so the track's failings are pretty problematic. English subtitles would help a whole lot, but of course, none are provided. Figures.
The main feature on the disc (in the "Audio" section) is an audio commentary with director Andrew Moorman, writer Arik Martin, and cast members Aaron Boucher, Steven Pritchard, and Marina Shtelen (the crew recorded separately from the actors). Moorman and Martin dominate, talking about the genesis of the project (originally written as a play -- ha!), and its long journey to distribution (the film was shot way back into 2004), with the actors dropping in to explain their participation in the project. It's a solid listen, covering all the bases with energy to spare.
Under the "Extras" tab, there's a surprise featurette called "Stage to Screen: Inside the Rehearsal Process" (11:10), an interesting black-and-white recording of a single scene performed on an empty stage, complete with a few additional lines and Moorman directing the actors, with occasional split-screen to the scene as presented in the finished film. Worth a look, although it runs a little long, given that the majority of the performances aren't particularly different.