It's being dubbed "the real Facebook movie," but while 'Catfish' possesses an eerie true-life slant that makes it hit much closer to home than 'The Social Network,' this low-budget "reality thriller" doesn't resonate as strongly as David Fincher's elegant chronicle of Facebook's genesis. As a raw, renegade documentary, however, it's a fascinating companion piece; one that exposes the dark underbelly of Mark Zuckerberg's invention and the nefarious purposes for which it can be used by those who are, among other things, unstable, opportunistic, or just plain lonely and bored.
'Catfish,' from its trailer, looks like a hyper-tense, real-life exercise in Internet horror, filled with gruesome discoveries and shocking revelations, but the reality is much tamer than the movie's marketers would like us to believe. That's not a bad thing, but it is worth noting, as I kept waiting for nail-biting moments that never really came. The mood of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman's well-constructed and absorbing film is often uneasy and a bit creepy, but it more closely resembles a detective yarn than a heart-pounding thriller. Outside of one scene where the subjects explore a dark, quiet farm (shades of 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'), the documentary remains fairly traditional in its structure.
The story follows the unfolding of what seems to be a regular Facebook friendship between twentysomething dance photographer Nev Schulman (brother of one of the filmmakers) and the family of Abby, an extremely talented eight-year-old artist who sends Nev painted copies of his photos. A cyber romance of sorts develops between Nev and the child's much older half-sister, Megan, distinguished by suggestive text messages and phone calls. Nev also comes in contact with the girls' mother, Angela. Yet despite the seemingly innocent chumminess of the relationships, warning signs quickly crop up, inspiring Nev (egged on by his brother) to at first play a game of cat-and-mouse with his so-called friends, then one of gotcha, as he tries to piece together the jagged puzzle pieces of a complex and increasingly strange scenario.
It's tough to discuss 'Catfish' without giving too much away, but the film possesses a fresh, energetic style that serves it well. Joost and Schulman find plenty of ways to perk up the material and make it visually stimulating, while Nev's engaging personality draws us into his realm. Like many of today's reality stars, he's completely comfortable in front of the camera and unafraid to show us a gamut of emotions and moods, some of which don't flatter him. Yet unlike many of the classless boobs who populate exploitative TV reality fare, Nev seems to possess some degree of intelligence and sensitivity.
Ultimately, though, it's not the subjects on screen so much as the film's everyman aspect that hooks us and makes 'Catfish' instantly relatable. Who among us hasn't used Facebook and had the opportunity to become embroiled in the lives of people about which we know very little? And who might not be vulnerable to the wiles and manipulations of someone pursuing an agenda or living out a fantasy who uses Facebook as a means to that end? Deceit and gamesmanship come cheap on social networking sites, no matter how stringent the supposed rules and consequences, and this film is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of the culture and fragility of the human condition...on both sides of the computer screen. It's also about our innate need to connect, and the lengths to which we will go to do so.
Once 'Catfish' reaches its climax, however, and begins to more acutely examine the subjects of its investigation, the film loses some steam. The impact remains potent, but the presentation becomes more static, and the change in tone has a choppy feel, almost as if the filmmakers suddenly said to themselves, "Oh, here's where we need to get serious and sensitive and hammer home a point." They still do a fine job telling a story and weaving together themes, but I found my interest in the enterprise waning.
It's also at about this time that I found myself questioning the story's veracity. Though some elements seem too neat and tidy to be totally spontaneous, I don't believe the entire project to be a scam, as others have intimated. (Though, in retrospect, it would be an oddly clever angle, given the film's themes.) I did, however, occasionally feel as if the subjects might have been mildly prepped before a few scenes, but who knows? Such speculation only adds another layer of intrigue to the film.
True, fabricated, or somewhere in between, I expected 'Catfish' to stay with me longer than it did. The relevant issues it raises certainly give one pause, but I found the movie to be more of a conversation sparker - something maybe to debate on Facebook? - than a resonating, thought-provoking work. As a hot-button, of-the-moment documentary, 'Catfish' succeeds, but unlike the truly great true-life chronicles, I doubt we'll be talking about it - on Facebook or anywhere else - very far into the future.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Catfish' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case and is housed on a 50GB dual-layer disc. The full-motion menu with music pops up immediately; no trailers are included on the disc. Load time is a little slow, but far from interminable.
'Catfish' comes to Blu-ray sporting a decent 1080p/VC-1 transfer that juggles the film's various forms of digital photography quite well. The image quality constantly fluctuates depending upon the type of device the filmmakers use for each shot, so the picture can be either grainy and noisy or super sleek and crisp. The jarring transitions suit the story well, keeping viewers in the moment and off balance, just like the on-screen subjects.
The true high-def segments possess beautiful contrast, vivid colors, and exceptional sharpness, but the fuzzy sequences fare equally well. The enhanced clarity of 1080p exaggerates the inherent imperfections of less sophisticated cameras and natural lighting, adding extra impact, atmosphere, and artistry to the film. Close-up shots of the computer screen amplify the pixels that make up the image (the opening titles do this extremely well), and shadow detail often surpasses expectations.
Black levels are rich and deep, and fleshtones always look stable and true. Nev's facial stubble and bushy brows are often strikingly detailed, and fabric textures and patterns are nicely rendered. No digital doctoring could be detected (this is very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get transfer), and though this surely won't be the disc you'll use to show off the dazzling nature of Blu-ray to friends, it accurately reflects the film's tone and directors' intentions. 'Catfish' may not look particularly pretty, but then again, it's not supposed to.
Documentaries often don't have kick-ass audio, and 'Catfish' is no exception. Still, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track pumps out clear, robust sound, no matter what type of recording equipment the filmmakers employ. The rudimentary sounds possess a raw quality that occasionally borders on harshness, but again, such coarseness fits the film well, ramping up the sense of unease that permeates the story. Dialogue, even when mumbled or captured at a distance, is always easy to understand, and atmospheric effects blend nicely into the audio fabric. Most of the sound remains anchored up front, with a bit of stereo separation adding interest. The rears don't get much action, nor does the subwoofer, but low-end tones enjoy some heft. The music by Mark Mothersbaugh fills the room well, thanks to good fidelity and tonal depth, and helps to sweeten the rather pedestrian track. No distortion or surface defects disrupt the mix, which doesn't provide any sonic fireworks, but complements the movie well.
Extras are thin, but that's not surprising considering the film's low-budget nature and modest theatrical success.
'Catfish' cogently examines one of our obsessions-du-jour and shows us how unsettling and potentially dangerous and damaging it can be. It also comments on our increasingly detached and unstable society, and how seemingly harmless engines like Facebook can fuel latent insecurities and unhealthy tendencies. Video and audio quality represent the material well, and extras are predictably thin. This edgy film rates a solid recommendation and is definitely worth a rental, but replay value is questionable, so keep that in mind if contemplating a purchase.