SHORT FILM REVIEW: Message Received



Author and entrepreneur Stephen Covey, the czar of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People empire was quoted once saying, “The more people rationalize cheating, the more it becomes a culture of dishonesty. And that can become a vicious, downward cycle.”  Those are extremely true words that come into play in the short film Message Received, leading to a key opening life lesson.

LESSON #1: BE FAITHFUL TO YOUR SPOUSE-- It’s too easy to say, but if you want to avoid getting caught, lying, and extorting ransoms of resources and character, don’t cheat on your spouse.  Keep your trust and honesty intact.  Put your energy into your marriage and you’ll be better and safer for it.

The character of James in Message Received, played by David Chin, is a married man whose extramarital activities has been discovered by a mystery person.  His actions that follow in the taut 11-minute short demonstrate how desperation can make that downward cycle even more steep and slippery.  Things get worse instead of better and he has no one to blame but himself.

A text from an unknown sender calls James out at 6:00am, waking him sleeping next to his unsuspecting wife Simone (Danny Ai). The unseen messenger knows the truth and presses James to do as instructed or have the secret exposed to Simone.  The texts, delivered to us viewers in a clever visual overlay on-screen, send James on a string of errands and tasks on a cold morning, culminating in an abandoned garage that screams trouble.  The demands center on money more than embarrassment.  Still, James’ clear distress, apprehension, and unmeasured shame are enough that even heading out of the house adds to more lies, let alone what we watch him risk further.

For its 11-minute running time, Message Received ratchets up palpable tension.   The close-up camera work brings the audience closer to invade their personal space and comfort zone with the immoral acts.  The wordless performance of David Chin becomes all about posture and nuance.  Each new text alert hits like deep bell tones of doom from the sound departments.  Each new notification demand tightens the spin of the emotional wringer James is being put through.  Chin, and later Ai, sell it well with impressive minimalism and not a hint of overacting.

Written by Stephen Herman and co-directed by him and Chin, the pacing of the suspense and the eventual denouement is superb and naturally stirs our desire up to want more, just as a good short film should.  Herman won the Best Director Award at the CUNY Film Festival for Message Received.  It’s easy to see why for this stellar short and it’s a pulpy little pop of dynamite.

LESSON #2: A DEAL IS RARELY A DEAL-- Part of why Lesson #1 isn’t worth breaking is the uncertainty that comes from extortion and under-the-table deals.  There are no guarantees when it comes to bribes and no security.  You may pay dearly and feel safe only to have comeuppance still find you.