The Glass Coffin (El ataud de cristal) arrives a little late to capitalize on that short-lived burst of interest in one-location survival thrillers from a few years back, but if the context of such a film possesses a strong hook, then the innovation and claustrophobia involved with the concept still holds the potential to strike a chord. Where others explored themes like the worth of a single civilian caught in the throes of war or the ways in which preparation and rudimentary medical knowledge can come in handy during dire situations, this tale of survival tackles a cultural, more metropolitan critique, focusing on the seedy corners of the filmmaking business and the objectification of actresses. Brash neon visual language and a willingness to cross lurid boundaries convey a boldness of vision for The Glass Coffin, but Spanish writer/director Haritz Zubillaga deliberately keeps relatability and compassion involving this victim at arm's length, amounting to an excessively gritty, inconsistent blend of kidnap thrills and torture porn.
Dressed to the nines for an evening of celebrating the achievements of her storied career, film actress Amanda (Paola Bontempi) slips into the well-stocked, neatly-lit cabin of a large limousine. While going over her speech in the car, in which she waxes poetic over the initial film that jump-started her career some two decades prior, the limo discreetly turns into a prison by locking the doors and shutting off cellphone service. With zero control over the compartment -- including the material flashing on TV screens, playing a variety of film clips and interviews -- Amanda is then confronted by a camouflaged voice over the intercom, almost as if it's pouring out from the central red camera reminiscent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This voice has more personal and confrontational plans for the actress, leading to a string of mental, physical, and sexual torture tactics that Amanda attempts to decipher as clues as to who her captor might be.
A crucial part of this type of survival film hinges on how the victim develops their personality during the early stages of the ordeal, and Amanda has plenty of time to speak to the audience in the early parts of the limousine ride as she recites her speech and chats with her significant other on the phone. Director Zubillaga gets carried away with the visual language early on, where streams of lens flares and passing lights in the windows convey too strongly that the actress is really in motion going somewhere, providing a frustrating aesthetic distraction while she ruminates upon and scoffs at her body of work. The intention of The Glass Coffin revolves around the audience having little obvious feelings, either positive or negative, toward Amanda as a person once the situations flips from a limo escort to a kidnapping scenario, which, by doing so, mutes some of the heroic bias from the situation and gives the captor's motives a chance to be comprehended on a level beyond sheer, perverse villainy. This could prove to be interesting, in a Saw "Let's play a game" kind of way, under the right circumstances.
The Glass Coffin immediately hits several speedbumps while revving up the audience with provocations, weakening the film's potential to accomplish more than hostile exploitation. At first, the captor's reasons for abducting Amanda seem like they might gravitate toward the current fascination with seeing celebrities in intimate or compromising situations, potentially transforming into a twisted commentary on leaked photos/videos, nudity in creative works, and privacy. Director Zubillaga's perspective on the captor's desires for the outcome of this whole scenario lacks consistency and conviction, though, creating red herrings around the real purpose behind Amanda's capture to keep the mystery intact for a long as possible. This has an alternate, regrettable side-effect: this lack of clear, precise intent forces the abrasiveness of what goes on in the illuminated limousine to stand on its own, and it starts to resemble pure shock value once the captor's demands start shifting around.
Underneath the troubling glow of red and blue mood lighting, The Glass Coffin enters some pretty dark places that result in an unsettling viewing experience, despite director Zubillaga's visual panache. Bloody beatings, manipulation with painkillers, and visualized scenes of sexual violation make for a nightmarish descent into the lengths in which someone will humiliate another out of existential disappointment and covetousness, all of which takes place within the claustrophobic -- yet, compared to an actual coffin, roomy -- space of the limousine's backseat. Powerlessness and a warped grasp on trust become driving forces behind the raw suspense, but they ultimately revolve around this inauthentic and deceitful voice of a villain who claims they'll never lie to Amanda, which holds the potential to be intriguing had they, y'know, obeyed said claims. They don't, and despite the voice's explanations as to why this or that isn't a lie, it's unclear whether the film's aware of this issue or not. When you're working with rape sequences, context and substance are what keep them from devolving into pure schlock.
Yes -- mild spoiler alert! -- the identity of the captor doesn't remain a mystery throughout the entirety of The Glass Coffin; in fact, disclosing who they are becomes an elaborate attempt to flood Haritz Zubillaga's torture thriller with meaning, one bound more directly to the cutthroat filmmaking industry. Frankly, the film would've been better off had it announced from the start, just as soon as the limousine locks shut and turns into a prison, who Amanda's captor was and the real reasons for her imprisonment, leading into twisted conversations between the two in the tight space with full awareness of the bleak rationale behind it. Using the limo as a single location for a volatile celebrity abduction would've been enough of a hook without a hodgepodge of enigmatic diversions confusing the audience about who's behind the voice, which comes across as a disingenuous buildup to an amped, preposterously dramatic reveal. Instead of relishing the film's monstrous tension and the moral ugliness behind it, The Glass Coffin simply makes one want the ordeal to be over with as soon as possible.
Video and Audio:
Essentially, there are three states to the visual language of The Glass Coffin: dark shadows with heavy red lighting, dark shadows with heavy blue lighting, and "normal" lighting that mostly captures the natural shades of Amanda's skin tone and clothing. The 2.35:1-framed, 16x9 transfer doesn't have it easy, constantly at war with assertive shadows that actively want to swallow up the details of the limousine's backseat, but the transfer from mostly keeps the action visible in the negative space, or at the very least doesn't impose upon the artistic endeavors of such heavy shadowing. During those normal patches, Amanda's skin tones veer warm and slightly orange, but that's to be expected of the "standard" lighting of a limo. Detail is strong enough in the shine of metal, the slosh of fluid in a vial, and the contours of a camera lens. Noise can get heavy and some black levels veer in both washed-out and overly dark levels at certain points, but The Glass Coffin's beauty is contained well on DVD.
It's easy to see how the soundtrack for The Glass Coffin could, feasibly, be playful in a surround environment, so it's unfortunate that only a stereo track accompanies the rich visual transfer. Sounds like the compression of automatic opening and closing doors, the snapping open of a baton, and the sizzling of a broken computer screen hit well-pitched high notes and midrange heft. Paola Bontempi's dialogue is rich, clean, and natural, whereas the heavily distorted verbal stream from her captor can get overly grumbly and indistinct. The track serves the film's scope well enough, and the Spanish subtitles are mostly fine, though not without a few grammatical errors here and there.
The Glass Coffin traps quite a bit of extreme content within the space of a one-location thriller, but it doesn't have the substance or coherence of vision to give its ugliness enough of a reason to be up on the screen. Haritz Zubillaga telegraphs uniquely colorful and claustrophobic visuals within the spaciousness of a glowing limousine backseat, and Paola Bontempi's performance yields a competent gray-area depiction of an actress with a questionable trajectory to success. The ordeal she goes through steers too far into the lane of perverse shock-value artifice for its own good, undercutting its shallow critiques of ambitiousness in the film industry in the process. It's more aimlessly unpleasant than genuinely tense, which doesn't service the overwrought revelations in the ending so well. Some might find it's worth a rental for the performances, but the futilely objectional slant of the material largely makes this one best to be Skipped.