Tribeca Review: Rat King


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Rat King is a thriller built around stylish implausibility. The set pieces and the overall tension are more important than any sort of real-world logic. At times it reminded me a little of Dario Argento in that regard. What we get is sort of like a nuttier Single White Female with a little gaming and some social networking. There’s maybe just a hint of Mazes and Monsters in there as well.

You actually have to forego a lot of logic with Rat King. Your suspension of disbelief will be stretched and tested, though the strong direction from Petri Kotwica might keep you interested nonetheless. I have a strong stomach for implausibilities as long as everything flows smoothly. Style can sometimes be enough to keep you on track. It’s when implausibilities are traded for impossibilities that things fly off the rails.

Rat King
Director: Petri Kotwica
Rating: TBD
Country: Finland

Juri (Max Ovaska) is a high school senior who has a problem with gaming. All day and all night, he’s in the basement on his computer, isolated from the rest of the world. It’s gotten to the point where he’s vieiwng the world in terms of video games. His only friends are online except for his girlfriend Mia (Niina Koponen), who wants him to stop gaming. Immediate implausibility: how does Juri have a girlfriend if he’s so socially withdrawn, and why does she put up with his total inattention? It’s not like he’s the only kid in Finland.

Hush, brain, let’s just go with it. Besides, Juri’s sincere and is willing to give up gaming for Mia. So maybe he’s an okay guy and that’s what she sees in him. (Warning lights in the brain in the first 10 minutes are usually not a good sign.)

It’s right when Juri gives up gaming that he finally hears from one of his online friends who’s been missing for a while. This friend goes by Mordred online, but his real name is Niki (Julius Lavonen). He says he’s been playing some frightening online game that may cost him his life in the real world. Juri takes him in and agrees to hide him, perhaps because Finnish people are extremeley naive. (Quiet again, brain. It’s a pretext for suspense. Here’s more endorphins.) Somehow Juri (implausibly) figures out how to log into this dangerous game, which involves him completing tasks for his webcam. The first task is to smile. Juri’s not that good at smiling.

In exchange for sheltering him from danger, Niki agrees to dress up like Juri and help him graduate. Now, the two actors, Ovaska and Lavonen, look similar when they have their hair cut the same way, and when they wear glasses, and when they stoop over awkwardly, but they’re not exactly alike. Ovaska’s got a thin, sharp, triangualr face, while Lavonen’s got softer facial features and a much stronger jawline. Still Niki (implausibly) does a great impression of Juri, enough so that it (implausibly) fools Juri’s mom and Juri’s girlfriend. You can probably guess that something is not right with the situation, that Niki may not be who he says he is, and that this new online game is something more sinister than Niki first let on.

Dealing with implausibilities like these (and many thereafter), the style of the film needs to go a long way to establish high levels of tension. Even when the film falls apart — picture Atlas straining under Saturn — I can at least say that Kotwica knows his way around suspense. As all these bizarre implausibilities reach the conclusion, Rat King is at least a gripping thriller. I wanted to know what would happen next because it would have to be built on some other even more implausible thing; and I was hoping that this other more improbable thing would be paved over with an extra helping of taut, stylish direction. I could at least write it all off as the logic of a fever dream.

But even if style wins out over the improbable, it can’t sustain itself in the face of impossibilities. Rat King has its glaring share of those, especially as the story winds down. The speeding train in your head hits the brakes too fast, and all the cars accordion into each other. The already shaky logic is done shook. You’re left exasperated by the stunning, smoking wreck before you. Maybe the impossibilities of Rat King are supposed to be clever, but as we learned from This is Spinal Tap, it’s a fine line between stupid and clever.

Had Rat King just been about all those improbabilities without the impossibilities, it would have been a bizarro thriller that at least made sense in its odd world, one populated by severely nearsighted mothers and girlfriends. But the glaring impossibilities just can’t be cleared. (The film’s final score reflects a precipitous drop from “decent” to “sub-par.”)

There’s a fitting line for all this from Mark Twain’s essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses. In the essay he discusses the ways that James Fenimore Cooper violates 18 of the 19 (or 22) rules of fiction in his novels The Deerslayer and The Pathfinder. One rule involves sheer impossibilities, which Twain calls “miracles.” The line goes: “…the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.”

This rule is not respected in the Rat King tale.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.