Jessica Scott says The Outwaters is an absolute nightmare of a movie, in the best way possible.
Watching Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters is like watching a cosmic atrocity play out through a homemade eclipse viewer. You only see a small reflection of the truth, but you can feel its enormity. It is an absolute nightmare of a movie—a compliment, to be sure—and an innovative found footage descent into hell. The premise is delightfully simple: four friends go camping in the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video, where they run into mysterious trouble. The audience's point-of-view is solely through Robbie’s (Banfitch) camera, with scenes often during pitch-black desert nights. Whatever is out there in the desert with them likes to play tricks that distort our sense of space and time. What is clear, though, is that the friends find Hell on earth.
Besides his thesis, this is Banfitch’s first feature-length film, and he shows an impressive command of tone and pacing. The Outwaters is dream-like and poetic, alternating between montages of wordless images and black screens pierced by terrifying sound design. In addition to directing, Banfitch acts as the film’s writer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer, and special effects lead. That firm, cohesive vision and DIY spirit come through within the film. It feels like Banfitch was able to pluck the worst nightmare he’s ever had straight from his subconscious and recreate it perfectly for cinema.
The cast is small and highly engaging, which aids the film’s DIY tone. The first half of the narrative focuses on getting to know Ange (Angela Basolis), Robbie’s brother Scott (Scott Schamell), and Michelle (Michelle May) as they prepare for their camping trip and explore the desert. Found footage films that adopt this structure can sometimes feel aimless in their openings, but The Outwaters is fascinating from beginning to end. You can feel the camaraderie amongst the group of friends. There’s strong characterization: we get a feel for Robbie's long relationships with Ange and Michelle and learn about Scott’s strained relationship with his and Robbie’s mother. Banfitch wisely lets us get to know and like his characters before the horror descends on them.
The Outwaters adopts a clever structure that adds to the tension. The film is presented as police evidence garnered from Robbie’s video cards in a truly found-footage fashion. Intertitles announcing the card numbers break up the film, keeping the viewer’s eye on the terror ahead at all times. One of the most striking sequences in the film announces the beginning of the end for the characters. As they drive into the desert, an extended shot with the camera inverted is accompanied by overwhelming choral music. It is an eerie and foreboding moment, made even more so when the same shot ends on the road they’ve just traveled, viewed through the passenger mirror. As if to say, “There is no turning back. Safety and happiness are now firmly in the past.”
The ominous imagery unnerves and only escalates with disorienting cuts, impressive editing, and camera tricks, further throwing us off balance. A single point of light in a desert so dark that it feels like the whole world has been painted black, and mysterious wet footsteps running toward us are some of the nightmares audiences will face while watching. With nerve-shredding sound design, striking imagery, and assured direction from Banfitch, The Outwaters is a masterful found footage death dream.