In 2013, the body of a college student was found floating in the Seekonk River. The man was later identified as Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University undergraduate who had recently been misidentified as one of the Boston Marathon Bombers by users on Reddit. In the aftermath of Tripathi’s death, many worried that social media had become a danger to due process. That toxicity is a wonderful jumping-off point for director Philip Barantini and screenwriters Barnaby Boulton and James Cummings for their new thriller, “Accused.”
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There’s nothing extraordinary about Harri Bavshar (Chaneil Kular). He loves his girlfriend Chloe (Lauryn Ajufo), has a few hundred followers on social media, and has a regular twenty-something collection of interests: video games and clothing. So when Harri takes a train to the countryside and misses being the victim of a London bombing by a matter of minutes, it feels like the closest he’ll ever come to a brush with danger. And while his parents offer to postpone their trip – and make halfhearted jokes about the scrutiny, they will now face at airport security – Harri promises that he and the family dog will be OK together.
But through a twist of fate – a last-minute decision to grab one ball cap over another – Harri is misidentified by social media as the London bomber. When he calls the police, he is told that these sorts of social media witch hunts often blow over quickly. Then he calls Chloe, who reveals that their London apartment has been vandalized and that her family is scared. And soon, internet forums dedicated to the bombing begin to share the address of his family home and pictures of his parents, putting Harri in the crosshairs of two men who seek to make a name for themselves by administering some vigilante justice.
Your first sign that Barantini has a clear sense of how to handle this material is in the aftermath of the bombing. There are no big explosions or dramatic action sequences; news of the attacks spread quickly via social media and text messages to the people sitting in Harri’s subway car. We have learned to absorb secondhand tragedies in a world where mass shootings are commonplace. That distance – where the specter of death can feel both everywhere and far away – is vital to understanding how the world reacts to Harri as a person of interest.
Given the subject, it should be no surprise that “Accused” has a clear perspective on the links between social media and violence. I’ve always been a fan of didactic genre cinema, and “Accused” slots nicely into the recent run of films with sermons lurking just below the surface. For example, Harri learns that the internet has named him the lead suspect while watching “Frankenstein.” Barantini draws obvious parallels between what is happening on both television and computer. On one screen, frenzied townsfolk break into the castle in search of the gentle monster; on the other, racists on social media goad each other into increasingly descriptive threats of violence. It is not a subtle message but isn’t trying to be.
And one of the beautiful things about “Accused” is how long Barantini stretches out the discovery process. Much of the movie takes place before the home invasion elements kick in, allowing audiences to stew in the knowledge that bad things are headed our way. For big chunks of its runtime, “Accused” is almost unbearably intense, leaning into a dissonant score from Baranti collaborators Aaron May and David Ridley to heighten our discomfort. In one sequence – where strangers challenge themselves to find Harri’s home address – the two men build their soundtrack around keyboard effects. The result is an oppressive wall of clacking that sells how dangerous things have become for the family.
“Accused” also borrows some of its staging from classic Hollywood whodunits. Each prop or piece of set dressing – from a set of keys to a loose board – plays a part in the sudden escalation of violence between characters. This is not to suggest that these sequences are overwrought; Barantini and company merely understand that sudden bloodshed only leaves so much room for plot mechanics in the hearts of audiences. Good tension requires intention, and Barantini will no doubt earn comparisons to neo-noir filmmakers like Jeremy Saulnier for his confident balance of stillness and hyperviolence on screen.
But the real star here is, well, the star. You would hardly believe that “Accused” is the feature debut for Chaneil Kular. With only a few television shows under his belt – including prolonged stints on “Sex Education” and “Doctors” – Kular crosses over with aplomb, carrying the entirety of Barantin’s film with very little onscreen support. The actor sells every second of his slow descent into hell and handles a sudden turn to violence with aplomb. It may not be a star-making turn for the actor, but it is undoubtedly the film that will put Kular on the radar of every Hollywood casting director.
There comes a moment near the end of “Accused” when I realized that Barantini and company had earned every possible ending for their film. The film stands on the precipice of tragedy and triumph and hides its intentions until the final minutes. But the final grace notes of the film speak to lessons not learned in a way that makes the entire experience even harder to absorb. “Accused” is the best kind of thriller: one that works within its means to tell a harrowing story without exploiting its subject matter. Twitter, ironically, is gonna love this one. [A-]