A well-off doctor is trying to sleep at his luxurious home during the holidays. But his night is interrupted when a break-in occurs and he's confronted by masked intruders.
But these are no ordinary robbers. They have an agenda -- they want to know what the doctor's medical research institute does with the billions of dollars that it raises each year. As he is confronted with the stark truth, the doctor must figure out what the intruders' motives are before their grievances explode into violence.
Written and directed by Raymond Wood, this short drama has the look and feel of a thriller, with dark moody cinematography, dynamic camerawork, taut pacing and dissonant musical score that underlies the gripping build-up of tension. Ominously masked invaders with guns drive the action, zeroing in on the prosperous doctor, played by actor Mark Ashworth, at the center of their plans. All the elements pull in viewers, building up the compelling question of the doctor's fate.
In a more traditional thriller, viewers might expect blackmail over a dark secret or the beginning of a hostage situation. But the film has something else up its sleeve. The intruders, led by actor Ben Owen, want to know why such a small portion of the money raised goes to the actual care of patients and research into the disease.
Much of the dialogue lays out the facts, which function as an indictment against the profit at the heart of supposedly non-profit charitable giving. The layer of moral indignation adds a thought-provoking element, but it also hints at a more visceral, perhaps relatable fury, where self-interested parties thrive and even live luxuriously off the pain and suffering of others.
The doctor and his captor debate over the issue, with the doctor lamenting the brokenness of the system, which curtails his effectiveness. "The system is broken," he argues, with a resignation that hints at a dashed idealism. But the intruders refuse to believe it, leading to a revelation that changes the game for them both.
Narrow in narrative scope and intensely focused, "Cells" is a beautifully executed self-contained scene, where the considerable accomplishment of the craftsmanship is enough to pull viewers in. And the storytelling hints at a larger story and deeper character depths that viewers may want more of. They may want to know more about the intruders themselves, and how they marshaled their resources. And they wonder what the doctor himself will do next. He is thrown both a gauntlet to do better, and the means to do so -- but we are left with the question of just how deep systemic corruption goes, and if the doctor has become a creature of this broken system. We don't know the answer, but it's a question that lives on, beyond the margins of the narrative into real life itself.