It is one of the most intriguing movies I've ever seen. It's a romance, but it's not. It's a horror movie, but there are no scares. I'd go so far as to call it a caper: it's a mystery discovered and unraveled. It's fascinating and creepy and touching and nerve-wracking all at once, and all under the pretext of "real life". It's been marketed as a true story, but personally, I don't believe it. I don't think the question is "Is it real?"; I think it’s "Does it need to be?"
Our hero is Nev, a photographer who (eventually) begins a relationship with Megan, a part-time model and older sister of Abby, a young painter who has been recreating some of Nev's published photographs. Nev lives in New York City and Megan in Michigan, but the two hit it off via Facebook and phone calls; Nev's filmmaker brother and friend film the relationship documentary-style as it progresses. Because our perspective is limited to what our camera-wielding trio experiences, Megan and her family exist only in photos, chats, posts, and phone calls. All is well at first, but as the relationship grows, so do the clues: something’s not right. Nev and Co. find holes in the story, so when the opportunity arises to travel out west for business, they decide a pit stop in Michigan is in order to straighten things out. And that’s where shit gets serious.
Catfish couldn’t be made without the documentary style; everything about it is shockingly real, and it’s that close-to-home quality that makes it engaging. No dramatic emotional breakdowns, no jump scares, no tricky camerawork. The Aha! moments are there when the trio starts playing detective, but each little mystery is solved by methods anyone could use, without the Sherlock Holmes mind games or the Agatha Christie Here’s-what-happened-and-how exposition. The result is incredibly satisfying and incredibly involving. Everybody wants to solve a mystery; we get to join three guys who actually do it without being Sam Spade or Agent Kujan. They’re just dudes, and they’re using what the internet gives them to answer questions the internet raises. For an audience, it makes checking your Facebook after the movie seem like detective work, suspicious and investigatory. For a screenwriting student: god, I wish I thought of that.
And when the movie gets tense, it gets tense. The farm scene, as an example, is one of the scariest moments I can remember in all the movies I’ve seen. You are so sure, you are positive something terrible is about to happen. And in the end, I guess something terrible does. The reveal is a nice one, though it gets a bit too human interest after a while. You can’t argue it’s not effective, but after the thrill of the chase, the truth seems a little… weird. Not sinister, not conniving, just… peculiar. I wanted something more, but I’m not really sure what that something more would be.
The ads have got it wrong: Catfish, more than The Social Network, is the movie that defines our lovely little decade. The Social Network (which was good, but smug) shows the success of those lucky/skilled enough to wield the internet to their benefit, in a story written and directed by those lucky/skilled enough to make it in the film industry. Catfish shows the other side of the coin: an unnerving but everyday story that confirms what we fear most about the online world, a story we’ve all suspected, written (maybe) and directed by people Just Like Us. Here’s my reference equation: it’s You’ve Got Mail meets The Blair Witch Project. Tender but creepy, dramatic but realistic. There's also a bit of The Shining in there; one of my favorite quotes about The Shining is something like "The scare isn't that he's going crazy; it's how long he's been going crazy." The same kind of logic applies to Catfish: it's not the deception that shocks you; it's the depth of the deception.
When I got home from The Social Network, I didn’t immediately get on Facebook to search for the names I’d heard in the movie. When I got home from Catfish, Facebook was my top priority. There were people I had to find and questions I had to answer.
And that’s the movie’s power.
Fun fact: this is a LEGO rendition of a movie that's about a painted rendition of a photograph. Meta upon meta; we need to go deeper.