Brian is a radio DJ who has seen better days. Once he had it all, but now he’s drinking too much, bitter and cynical and relegated to working at a small local station.
One night during his broadcast, he gets a call from a man who claims he’s going to kill his mother if Brian hangs up, takes him off the air or calls the police. But even this heightened situation manages to turn darker, pushing Brian to his limits and forcing him into an unexpected confrontation.
Written by Martijn Daamen and directed by Bastiaan Rook, this short thriller is both a character study of being at one’s lowest point in life and marshaling your inner resources to overcome obstacles. Thanks to its genre bona-fides, the obstacles are particularly heightened and the stakes life-and-death and the writing and craftsmanship are beautifully woven together to maximize suspense. But ultimately it is a tale about a man who must learn to confront the source of malaise that he’s been running from for awhile.
Thrillers are sometimes classified as a uniquely American genre, and there is a kind of roguish, rebellious quality in both the stylishly jagged filmmaking and Brian’s characterization, which emphasizes a certain DGAF quality in him that is part rock ‘n roll and part self-negligence and loathing. A propulsive score, a luridly cool approach to nighttime cinematography and editing that emphasizes contrast and energy are all elements that take their cues from classic 80s-eras L.A.-centric thrillers like Die Hard, which themselves were a more exuberantly violent offshoot of film noir. In many ways, the story could easily be imported into an American setting as well, with its international flair.
But there’s an intelligence in the storytelling, and a willingness to delve deep into a character, that marks somewhat of a departure for the genre. Like other genres, there are twists and turns in the plot, but rather than coming from a somewhat convoluted manipulation of circumstances, the ones in this short are rooted deep within the main character’s history and psychology, and force the character to look at himself in a way that he’s avoided.
Without giving much away, Brian comes face to face with those shrouded dimensions of himself. Actor Sytse Faber’s performance is one of unmasking, shedding the louche, cynical persona he carries, and ultimately digs deep into Brian’s biggest regrets in the past. He unearths a vulnerability that can be rare in a relatively macho genre, making for a film that’s as emotional as it is gripping.
“On Air” ends with somewhat of a cliffhanger for a thriller. But when framed as a character sketch, it ends on Brian’s most emotionally naked and unprotected moment, leaving viewers in the throes of both suspense and devastation. Ultimately, it is about the way we look into our past and confront the consequences of our actions. The film presents this in a heightened, acutely dramatic way, but in terms of underlying emotions, it’s still the same regret, sorrow and horrified disappointment in yourself.