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Chariot (2013) Review

Chariot was directed by Brad Osborne (Murder Made Me Famous, Hall of Mirrors), written by Eric Vale (One Piece, Borderlands 2) and stars Anthony Montgomery (Star Trek: Enterprise, Without Ward), Michelle Sherrill (Texas Cotton, Camino), Brina Palencia (My Hero Academia, Dragon Ball Super), Ian Sinclair (Attack on Titan, Borderlands 3), David DeLao (Better Call Saul, The Marksman), Leslie Steele (5th Ward, Washington’s Armor), Joe Nemmers (Mad Money, Snitch), Larry Jack Dotson (Baphomet, High Moon), and J. Taylor (My All American). It follows a group of strangers as they figure out the reason that they’re on a plane together, with no communication with the pilots.

The Plot: Taking beats from titans of the “strangers-forced-to-work-together” subgenre like Cube and Exam, is to be expected from any movie using the same premise. Chariot doesn’t invent a new way to play the setup out, but it’s one of the best imitators.

Three strangers, Cole (Montgomery), Michael (Nemmers), and Emily (Palencia) wake up on board a plane midflight. They don’t know what’s going on and decide to rouse the rest of the passengers; Aden (Sinclair), Genevieve (Sherrill), Belinda (Steele), and Ra (DeLao), who has to be knocked back out after greeting everyone in a frenzy. All of their phones have been taken, except one that slipped through whatever cracks there may have been in whatever plan may have been executed. With this small and decidedly convenient find, the group witness the bombing of several American states on a live news broadcast.

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Vale doesn’t entirely withhold the secret plan for long, with Genevieve’s conversation with one of her associates within the government revealing that she and all of the other occupants of the plane have been put on a list. In a narratively smart move, the characters begin searching for anything useful, delaying the reveal for a short while.

They’re contacted by NORAD General Collins (Dotson), who tells them that this was all by design to save the most desirable in case of a major attack on American soil and that they need to contact the pilot, Moss (Taylor), to get him to land in Bermuda since D. C. has been levelled. It’s a good move to have in this story, as without his instruction, any character action would seem reckless and directionless.

The third act sets up an ultimatum of sorts, offering the characters two options that have very little appeal. What’s important here is the fact that Chariot doesn’t run out of places to take its story, keeping the engines running (get it?) with tasks for the characters to perform instead of using character drama as a crutch to stretch the runtime or artificial stunting of the reveal process.

Chariot’s story is a great one that hasn’t been played out in this environment, it’s got stakes and destinations to spare.

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The Characters: Most movies set in a limited location don’t bother to give much in the way of detailing to their participants, but that isn’t so in Chariot, which doesn’t break new ground but reveals its characters’ identities neatly.

Cole is a truck driver. He’s not much for small talk and has fallen out of practice to a degree, presumably because of his job’s natural limit on communications. Despite this, and his presence on the plane being a mistake, he becomes the head of the group and voice of reason. His pragmatism is shared by all, but competing allegiances from Aden, an ex-black hat hacker threatened by the government, and others like Genevieve, a government contractor, and Michael, the secretary of transportation, get in the way of problem-solving.

Emily falls outside this umbrella of interest and strained relations, being a college student, with her entrance being justified by being an intern at the White House. The others, Belinda and Ra, help keep the dynamics shifting. Belinda is a housewife with questionable ethics and Ra livens up certain encounters with his introduction setting an uneasy precedent.

It would’ve been easy to attribute the specializations of all of the characters to lazy writing, but that’s not the case, thanks to the story’s required buy-in of a group of people who are too important to lose. More blanks are filled in too, with backstories being exposited when questions arise instead of the quick and easy seminar that most limited location movies use, although there are more than a few spot-on guesses from characters about each other.

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The Mystery: Osborne and Vale could’ve kept the movie as straightforward as it seemed in the first 10 minutes; but they don’t do that, instead, taking a bold step to make Chariot more mystery than thriller, keeping questions and answers flowing.

Curiously, the identities of the characters aren’t kept under wraps for more than a couple of minutes as the characters immediately get acquainted with each other. The questions the movie does posit don’t revolve much around identity, but the situation at hand. From the outset, Osborne points the camera in the direction of the cockpit, making it the point of interest for the characters. The way that Moss is framed as the answer to most of the queries, makes the answer tantalizingly close.

Naturally, with the only information coming from a brief call from Collins and an even briefer glimpse of America’s undoing, there are questions about the source of both the attacks on the country and the legitimacy of the operation that put them where they are. As the movie goes along, the players get clued into the reason why they’re there, but can’t confirm if that reason is strictly the truth. When they look out into the sky, all they see is the blackness of night at 65,000 feet in the air. All is told in the last segment of Chariot, but the clues are there.

A splotch of blood goes unnoticed for a while, too long since all the characters have ventured back and forth throughout the plane, which leads to the be-all, end-all question of identities. It’s an exposition dump, but it gives more credence to what few trustworthy interactions they’ve had up to that point.

Chariot doesn’t keep all its clues close to the chest, but the ones it does reserve for later manage to recontextualize the movie in a good way, and it leaves the ending ambiguous too, although that may be disappointing to some.

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The Technics: Osborne made this movie on a shoestring budget. With only 42,000 dollars at his disposal, he created a strong movie in most respects.

Few complaints can be filed under the script. Vale makes sure all the theories are presented and accounts for them, setting the stage with a message that alludes to the real-life basis for the movie. It’s not an airtight movie, as one exchange pokes a couple of decently sized holes in the story, but it’s a great story despite that. Pacing can be troublesome at points, as in the middle things occasionally sag into stasis, but the movie never stalls outright.

Some of the post-production decisions are obtuse, such as the nearly complete sapping of the colour palette which makes everything look flat, and some shaky audio could’ve been ADR’d over. Thankfully, we only see what the characters see, so CGI doesn’t ever take away from the paranoia in play.

Chariot is a great example of what a limited location and a good script can create. Its mystery is compelling, focused, and grounded in real-world fears. Seek it out.

Seeking out Chariot may take a bit of work, as it seems to be out of print and surprisingly unavailable on streaming platforms. Even the usually reliable JustWatch has nothing except a link to the wrong film. FilmTagger has a few suggestions for similar films to watch until this becomes available.

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