“96 Minutes” is a story about violence told in a violent manner. It’s an unsightly film, dreadfully cynical and obvious, but there’s a germ of an idea concerning the foundation of cruelty that’s worth noting, but it involves sitting through a 90 minute picture anchored by unnecessary shaky cam, one genuinely bad performance, and superfluous cursing to prove itself hard enough to dramatize life locked in dire urban centers. It’s a mediocre effort from writer/director Aimee Lagos, making her feature-length helming debut, but “96 Minutes” has moments of promise and severity that suggests the moviemaker might excel with better material one day.
“96 Minutes” is scripted minimally, using radical shifts in time to accentuate the disorientation distracting the main characters. It’s a series of flash-forwards and flashbacks that take their time establishing the true crisis at the center of the movie, holding the viewer in the dark as Lagos labors to shake up perspective to bring identity to her feature. The editorial jumble doesn’t increase the picture’s alarm, delaying tension to a point where it doesn’t mean anything by the end of the film. “96 Minutes” attempts to shock its audience into submission, ratcheting up the suspense with acts of intimidation and violence that aren’t immediately clear. It’s not hard to keep up with the movie, but the empty intensity wears thin as soon as it becomes clear how evasively Lagos is going to play the entire effort.
Characters are painted in broad strokes: Carley is the disengaged law student arguing about the death penalty, now involved in a crime worthy of extreme justice; Lena is the desperate sad sack struggling to remain alive; Dre is the lost cause fighting to build a future for himself; and Kevin is a slack-jawed teen with a verbally abusive mother, losing himself in first-person shooter video games that support his artificial sense of manliness. Lagos also introduces racist, clueless cops, and Duane (David Oyelowo), an observant restaurateur who fully comprehends the dangers of Dre and Kevin’s neighborhood.
The performances are acceptable, with Ross and Snow contributing tasteful work that utilizes a great deal of internalization, mentally searching for a way out of the volatile situation. It’s Trautmann as Kevin that’s the real concern. It appears Lagos is hoping the audience will sympathize with the aspiring gang member in some manner, with his problematic upbringing heavily underlined to deflect blame and expose vulnerability -- a true product of his toxic environment. Trautmann doesn’t possess the experience to portray such a disturbed mind, relying on cartoonish facial reactions and repetitive swearing to communicate Kevin’s confusion. Instead of grasping the boy’s pain, the shrill performance decimates all interest in the welfare of the character.
“96 Minutes” is more bitter than hopeful, expressing disgust with the world at large, with even the honorable punished for their selfless actions. The display of rage is honest and forward, especially near the end credits, yet that intriguing fury can’t catch a full breath in this unfocused and unhelpful picture.