Billed as “The Best Hitchcock Film Hitchcock Never Directed”, Catfish has a lot to live up to. Based on its trailer, you would think directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman crafted a gutwrenching work of suspenseful horror—a film that took an unexpected turn midway through from which it could never turn back, driving both characters and audience to an inevitably bloody fate. The obsessive, stalker-esque nature of the protagonist’s internet relationship with a girl living several hundred miles away, his unannounced midnight appearance at her woodland barn, and the ominous quote about the “emotional rollercoaster” of the film’s final forty minutes all suggest a rockin’ psych thriller that would make old Alfie proud. Unfortunately you’ll be a lot more entertained by the vagueness of the trailer than anything in the film itself; after it became blatantly apparent that Catfish’s “big secret” was exactly what you would think it is, I spent the rest of the film imagining what Hitchcock would’ve actually done with this perfect storm of unfamiliarity, lies, and orchestrated identity. It’s a shame too, because underneath all its misguided marketing there’s a legitimately great film about the dangers of online social networking to be appreciated.
Nev Schulman is an aspiring photographer living in New York. Three years after one of his photos was picked up by a major magazine, he receives an oil painting of the very same photograph signed by Abby, an 8-year-old Michiganian girl. The two become Facebook friends and continue to exchange correspondence, triggering interest in one another’s family and circle of friends; Nev’s officemates, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, begin documenting his interactions with the young girl after Abby’s mother and sister begin calling on a near-nightly basis, slowly corralling Nev into a quasi-familial relationship with a bunch of people he’s never met. As the story unfolds, Abby’s older sister sends Nev some links that lead him to question everything about his newfound e-family. With his trusty documentarian crew at hand, the young photog sets out to Michigan in hunt of Abby, her family, and the truth.
And that’s where I’ve got to cut off. You see, studio producers are marketing Catfish as a shocking thriller sporting at least one crazy, mind-shattering twist that might melt your brain.
Everything I just described? That’s stuff from the trailer, slightly contextualized to provide a modicum of understanding about the narrative. If you know anything about internet relationships you can probably guess where Nev’s doubt leads him—it’s a tale as old as the World Wide Web. There is no giant cockroach that bursts from the barn pictured in the trailer and nobody unzips their skin to reveal catfish scales. This is a sad story about real people living in suburban America—about reconciling who you became with who you dreamt of becoming. It touches home in a very personal way—explores the relationship between the actual and created self as represented in both reality and online. This is a film that speaks to a generation growing increasingly disgruntled by technology’s stranglehold over our personal lives and availability—of the perils inherent in putting yourself on the web and trusting others that do the same. In short, it’s an important film horribly maligned by a misleading marketing campaign—a campaign much more targeted at the blockbuster demographic than anyone who will appreciate its intricate, modern themes. If I had walked into this expecting a portrait of the modern e-relationship, I would’ve walked away pleasantly surprised, but because the marketing campaign steered me towards thriller territory, I was disappointed. It’s like buying a ticket for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and being shown The Bridges of Madison County instead—both are great, but if I walk in expecting Clint to shoot up some baddies and get him smooching on Meryl Streep instead, I’m going to be pretty pissed. Catfish could be a great film if you knew what you were going into. Unfortunately, its marketing campaign makes that nearly impossible.