Savage: Dashcam (2021)

Between Host and Dashcam, Rob Savage established himself as the poet of pandemic spatiality – one of the few directors who managed to capture the atmosphere of lockdown in cinematic language (or as a rupture in cinematic language). Yet where Host focused on the experience of being shut up inside, in an interminable claustrophobic mindscape, Dashcam ventures into the amorphous “outside” of the Covid era. For those of us isolating at home, most of our interface with this exterior pandemic world came through fleeting car travel – driving to get tested (or vaccinated), receiving food from delivery drivers, or engaging in the automotive gig economy ourselves to stay afloat. Dashcam condenses all those pursuits into the figure of Annie, played by comedian Annie Hardy, a comedian who livestreams a music show directly from her car. It’s unclear whether this platform preceded the pandemic, but by mid-2021, at the height of Covid, when the film was both shot and takes place, Annie has perfected her vision, freestyling a bespoke gangsta rap as she cruises through life-or-death streets, in a new form of urban ruin tourism catered to lockdown, as when she travels to LAX, which is completely abandoned apart from a single coughing person in the departure lounge.

As it turns out, this is the mere preface to a longer journey and reunion – a trip to London, where Annie plans to link up with her former comedy partner Stretch, played by Amar Chadha-Patel. Stretch is like the banal half of Annie’s auteurist comedy, since he’s left the livestreaming world behind, and is making ends meet during lockdown by working as a delivery driver. He doesn’t seem to be expecting Annie, or at least not expecting her to insinuate herself so thoroughly into his new life, and yet this makes her relish the fact of livestreaming the jagged edges and emergent frictions between them even more. The tension between their divergent driving lifestyles peaks when she commandeers his delivery routine, with no respect for Covid protocol, and spontaneously agrees to give a lift to Angela, a woman played by Angela Enahoro, at the somewhat odd request of a restaurant owner. The crisis of the film thus begins with Annie giving someone a lift against regular delivery driver protocol – and a person who seems to be sick with Covid at that, since Angela appears to be deathly ill, and is wearing a mask, although this doesn’t motivate Annie to start wearing one herself.

This all functions as the prelude to the film proper, which follows Annie and Stretch (who soon cuts back into his delivery route, and discovers that Annie has co-opted it in his absence) as they try to transport this woman to another empty restaurant. Between the restaurant where they collect her, and the restaurant where they try to deposit her, the strange no-spaces traversed by pandemic drivers intensifies to a supernatural extent, and endows Angela with a panoply of supernatural powers. These manifest themselves as a spatial aporia, a sudden vacancy or incoherency of space that occurs from hereon out whenever Annie and Stretch step out of the car. Over the rest of the film, space gradually decays and dissolves, partly because it is continually punctuated by traumatic collisions, but also independently of these collisions, until all that remains is trauma without space – an eerily undifferentiated field in which atrocity continues to occur, but without a clear spatiality to ground or orient it, as Angela’s powers turn her into a force field of continuing and escalating spatial devolution.

In that sense, there is no real setting in Dashcam, at least not after the trio have a catastrophic car accident in the middle of an anonymous stretch of road bordered by an anonymous stretch of woods, shortly after leaving the restaurant where they were supposed to deposit Angela. The remainder of the film keeps looping and escalating around the debris field of this car crash, both inciting and thwarting Annie’s own fluid freestyling momentum through space. One minute we’re in the woods, the next we’re in a cabin; one second, Annie and Stretch are laughing, the next they’re being shot at, splinters of wood fracturing the screen from all directions. Over time, more and more scenes take place in utter darkness – under a blanket, in a tunnel, when the phone torch abruptly turns off – and yet Annie tries to retain the flow of driving and rapping through it all, as if waiting for the car-beat that will usher her back in.

While this entire narrative is being livestreamed, these spatial apora gradually infect the feed, producing periodic fissures, blank spots when nobody is watching. Just as the early parts of the film capture the creepiness, peculiar to the pandemic era, of suddenly stumbling across utterly deserted spaces, so Annie’s viewers oscillate wildly, regularly climbing to the hundreds (and finally the thousands) before being evacuated by her ongoing connectivity issues, which tend to coincide with, or occur on the cusp of, maximal spatial disorientation. The longest lapse in the feed occurs when Stretch (with Annie’s phone) stumbles across an abandoned fairground, and is forced to make his way beneath a decrepit roller coaster to a teacup ride, where he finds a potentially possessed Annie waiting for him. In another kind of film, we might venture onto one of these abandoned rides, but the freefall of Savage’s vision has already exceeded all of them, leaving Annie and Stretch with nowhere to go but the mirror maze, in a pandemic twist on The Lady From Shanghai. Likewise, the film plays as a refraction of earlier horror tropes into a new era of Covid horror. As we move across nods to The Blair Witch Project, Friday the 13th, The Descent and REC, Savage suggests that the pandemic has exhausted every imaginable horror mode, taking us to a horizon in what horror can achieve.

That sense of pastiche and exhaustion brings Dashcam much closer to a horror-comedy than Host, and this is only enhanced by Annie’s livestreaming persona as an alt-right provocateur, a Covid gangster who refuses to wear a mask, takes pride in her MAGA hat, and continually lauds herself for being an anti-vaxxer. The comments on her livestream, which enrhythm the film, and provide much of its anarchic energy, adopt the same voice, continually and comically lambasting Stretch for being a cuck by comparison. This is presumably the reason why Dashcam was so panned by critics, especially since “Annie” here is clearly a cipher for Annie Hardy’s real-life comedy persona, which articulates many of the same worldviews. No doubt, this was a hard character to swallow at the height of the pandemic, but in retrospect there’s an artfulness in how Annie, and the film, play around this persona too. Not only is it unclear how close her fictional and real selves are supposed to be, but even her “real” self frequently plays as a provocation, a dissembling and deconstruction of the alt-right obsession with Covid freedom as much as an unquestioning endorsement of it. As the demographic most desperate to chart the porous thresholds between lockdown and its amorphous outside or other, the alt-right were perhaps an inevitable point of reference in Dashcam, so Savage’s response is to frame them (through Annie) in the same way an older brand of horror film framed slashers – as both the violators of the paternal law and the perverse upholders of the paternal law.

The result is a remarkably emergent tone, in which comedy refuses to allow horror to ever be truly cathartic, without gratifying us by escalating into full-blown horror-comedy either. Every moment of comic relief is precipitous, as when Annie stops for a well-earned cigarette break, only for the movement of lighting her match to tumble her entire car into a quarry, where she has to fight Angela in the most liquidly amorphous space so far. And that contradictory tonality constellates in the closing credit sequence, which sees Annie performing the longest and most fluid freestyle of the film, while breaking the fourth wall between her real and fictional selves, as the cast and crew of Dashcam appear in the comment feed of her dashcam, prompting her to extemporise vulgar riffs on each name. This ten-minute section is the reason why Dashcam clocks in at an hour and fifteen minutes (the main narrative is about an hour, the same as Host), and yet just when Annie and “Annie” seem to have converged around this renewed flow, “Annie” (or Annie) abruptly announces that she has had enough, and halts the freestyle mid-credits, as we jarringly cut to black for the remainder of the names to flow up the screen. In that strange space between the consummate flow of the alt-right provocateur and the prescience of something outside, other or alterior to it, lies the genius of Dashcam, which captures one of the perennial pandemic experiences in cinematic form – bursting to step outside your front door, only to find the world displaced from itself when you finally do.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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