The new feature film Backgammon has at least one thing in common with its namesake board game: After watching it for just a few minutes, you’re bound to get bored. Directed and co-written by newcomer Francisco Orvañanos, Backgammon is billed as part “psychological sexual thriller and part classic mystery.” While a couple of the characters do have psychological issues, this meandering, pretentious art film is devoid of any thrills—sexual or otherwise.
The premise is simple: Privileged college student Andrew (Christian Alexander) invites his friend Lucian (Noah Silver) and Lucian’s girlfriend Elizabeth (Olivia Crocicchia) to his family’s mansion on the Maine coast for a weekend. The idyllic getaway is ruined when Andrew’s flighty sister Miranda (Brittany Allen) and her maddening boyfriend Gerald (Alex Beh) show up unannounced. But, while Andrew and Elizabeth tire of Miranda’s and Gerald’s antics and bickering quickly, Lucian’s intrigued by the couple. He’s mesmerized by Miranda, especially drawn to the painting studio where Gerald’s nudes of Miranda hang about the room.
Just a few minutes into the film, we learn that Andrew’s left a note saying he’s headed back to Yale, and Elizabeth, thinking Lucian’s cheated on her, has left in anger—or so that’s what Miranda tells Lucian. Gerald’s gone, too. They’ve broken up after a doozy of a fight last night, she says, and he’s disappeared.
At this point, you might think that Orvañanos is setting the plot in motion for a serial killer on the loose. If only we’d be that lucky. Backgammon flashes back to earlier moments in the weekend to show the drinking, the arguments that ensue among the guests and just how irritating Gerald really is. The film then segues into a two-hander between Silver and Allen, who flirt with each other (although the pairing’s devoid of chemistry) while searching rooms and spaces for Gerald, who may not have left after all. Orvañanos hints at the possibility of violence or a deeper mystery, but the promise is just a facade. No one should be surprised by the “twist” at the end of the film.
Based on R.B. Russell’s novella, Bloody Baudelaire, the script’s dialogue is painfully stilted, with Orvañanos, Russell and co-writer Todd Niemi striving for the sophistication found in, say, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan. They fail badly. The emotionally fragile Miranda speaks in a formal, blue-blooded accent, making lines like “A quiet feeling of liberation has come over me” sound so much worse. Meanwhile, her brother, who’s only onscreen for a few minutes before leaving the mansion, speaks the college vernacular: “I can’t stand that guy [Gerald]...all he fucking does is quote French poetry.”
The acting is nearly as difficult to watch, with the actors either over-emoting (Allen), over-brooding (Silver) or over-playing the crazy drunk (Beh). Gerald, the Baudelaire-quoting artist, is especially over-the-top. In a dramatic poker game scene, Gerald plays Lucian for the entire collection of his nude Miranda paintings. Beh drinks and smokes with conviction throughout the scene, but he sounds ridiculous. The same scene pays homage to the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton arguments in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as Gerald and Miranda drink, fight and throw bottles at each other. It’s nearly comical, but we can’t place blame entirely on the actors; Orvañanos surely led them toward this ham-handed and pretentious direction.
Cinematography by Simon Coull is one of Backgammon’s few assets. The film looks beautiful, with well-framed establishing shots taking advantage of the Maine coast as well as the house’s well-appointed interiors. But the film could have used another editing pass, lingering far too long on close-ups of the actors acting as hard as they can—meanwhile a completely needless backgammon game is played between Lucian and Miranda toward the end of the film. Backgammon’s last scene includes an aerial shot that circles the estate, feeling entirely out of place. It’s totally unnecessary—an over-indulgence—but it’s also the perfect metaphor for this film.
Director: Francisco Orvañanos
Writers: Francisco Orvañanos, R.B. Russell and Todd Niemi,
Starring: Brittany Allen, Noah Silver, Alex Beh, Olivia Crocicchia, Christian Alexander
Release Date: March 18, 2016
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.