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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz


A Claustrophobic Nail Biting Political Drama

How do you identify complete flawlessness? Whether it be a film, television, or theater, how do you drone in on the rarest of ways that stories are told, pluck them out, and place them in the vault inside our minds that says “This is where perfection lives”? Every single person does this, even if they’re not the most passionate or participatory of cinephiles. Everyone has favorites. It’s just human nature. Most people make their lists based on what entertains them but what about what resonates with them? What stories familiarize, empower or traumatize? How do you rank cinematic perfection based on that criteria?

You react physically.

You're probably reading this and assuming I’m referring to crying over something saddening or inspiring. I’m not. I’m referring to something bigger. I’m referring to what happens when your body physically undergoes this transformation and the authenticity of what you are watching causes your body to react in a multitude of ways. This is particularly effective when you watch something by yourself because you don’t feel pressured to hold it all together. A few days ago, I watched Tina Satter’s Reality on MAX (HBO). By the time the film ended, my arms were red the way they turn when you get stress hives, I was sweating profusely, I was breathing heavily, I was thirsty like I’ve never been before and I felt massive cramps in my calfs the way you do when your swimming and your legs are gripped with muscle spasms. Reality had an effect on me, to say the least.

It wasn’t even because of what was happening or what was going to happen. It was because of that feeling deep inside of you when you're right on the final verge of experiencing what will be the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to you. Inside you're destroying yourself. Outside, you’re calm and quiet. Standing in a small closed space with people who are going to hurt you, conversing with them casually as though everything is going to be ok when you KNOW, truly know deep deep down that it’s absolutely not and there are only moments left.

That kind of never-fully resolved trauma is what filmmaker/playwright Tina Satter and actor Sydney Sweeney portray so accurately, you can only wonder what they must’ve undergone in their own lives in order to authentically pull this film off.

At roughly 82 minutes’ Reality takes place mostly inside a nearly empty unused room in the small home of 25-year-old Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney). It was a warm sunny day in Augusta Georgia on June 3rd, 2017 when she arrived home from grocery shopping. Upon parking her car, she looks through her phone only for her window to be knocked at by FBI agents Justin Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Wallace Taylor (Marchant Davis) who’ve come with a search warrant and additional backup.

The reality was an ambitious NSA translator hoping to be deployed while also working as a yoga instructor and CrossFit trainer when she sacrificed everything and left work one day with a classified intelligence report regarding Russian interference in the 2016 United States Elections in her pantyhose.

The entire film is the recorded FBI interrogation between the agents and Reality at her home. Nothing is added and nothing is left out. Communication begins pleasantly enough but it’s beyond awkward, even outside. Reality and Garrick chit-chat and make small talk about her neighborhood, their mutual interests in fitness, and their love of dogs (All of this is being done as various people enter her house while she remains outside).

Reality has a loyal barking rescue dog and a furry little cat under the bed. She expresses concern for her pets and is allowed to bring her dog outside to be put in a fence and her cat to be put on a leash inside since the door will be left open for the search. Garrick is the chatty one, seemingly the “Good Cop” of the two while Taylor carries himself more firmly and reserved.

Taylor has trouble unlocking Reality’s phone and when she tries to help unlock it for him, he backs away as though touching her phone is equivalent to setting off a massive explosion. Protocol is a religion for those working in security. They live by it and treat it almost like a ballet. Every step of the interrogation must run in line with the choreography.

Reality is soon allowed to enter her house once the search begins and she and the agents retreat to a nearly empty room with nothing but a dog crate and a sink by the door. The door closes and the cancerous anatomy of suffocation slowly manifests into a full-blown psychological slaughter. The claustrophobia on display here is so in line with the claustrophobia one feels right before a panic attack.

From here on out, watch every move these people make. Every facial expression, facial transition, the way Reality’s pores open up, the cracks of nerves in her laugh. It’s all over for her from the moment she arrives home. She knows that. It’s all over.

I’m sure that anyone who's watched The Girlfriend Experience will agree with me that the tone, pacing, and discomfort of Reality fully mirrors Episode 9 of season 1 which takes place entirely at Riley Keough’s place of work where a private tape is leaked to her whole office and for 29 minutes, we are holding her breaths as the life she’s worked for evaporates into nothing as though it was never there at all. Reality carries itself out the same way and the creepy interactions between Reality and Garrick will make the small hairs on the back of your neck lift up. The friendlier he is, the creepier he becomes. “We’re dog men,” Garrick says cheerfully to Reality early on, foreshadowing the truth: Wolves are always on the hunt and these wolves didn’t need to look very far for their prey.

There’s definitely a real sadness when it comes to the dedication of the agents because they’re not bad men per se, they’re there to do their job and they don’t cross any lines or seem to abuse their power. We don’t even know what their politics are. They may very well be secretly thrilled Reality did what she did. They may be the nicest guys on the planet but for the duration of Reality, they’re at work and there are no breaks in their shifts.

“I don’t think you're a big bad master spy,” Garrick says. “I think you just ……..messed up. I think you’re angry about what's been going on. Was there something that just (Snaps his fingers loudly) pushed you over the edge on this?”

Reality looks over at the window and sees a tiny snail slowly turning upside down. It’s clearly dying, most likely because it can’t take the pressure of the June heat. The hot weather makes people tired and Reality becomes drained as tears finally release but never in a cliche manner. The tears are slow and she instantly wipes them away. She’s not looking to use her tears to try and gain sympathy from these slightly older men who in another life could probably be like cool uncles to her. She’s too smart for that. All three of them carry themselves with such a sense of responsibility that lets them know without words they’re all there because they HAVE to be, not because they want to. These agents don’t have the power to decide Reality’s fate. If they did, the interrogation may have been much different. Maybe.

Reality’s face looks like porcelain for the entire film and in its final moments, the cracks in the glass are seconds away from breaking. By the time she’s put in handcuffs, her only concern is if she can make a phone call to her friend to come get her pets so they won’t be alone.

Sweeney plays this moment beautifully and every second she’s on screen, you can’t take your eyes off her. Like Reality, Sweeney was ambitious from a very young age. Shortly before she turned 14, she made a 5-year business plan that she presented to her parents to convince them she was serious about pursuing acting. They drove from their small town in Idaho to Seattle and L.A. for every audition and by the time she turned 14, they’d decided to move to L.A. as she started getting commercial jobs.

2018 was when viewers seemed to start taking notice of her. That’s when I did. She had a small recurring role on the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects as Alice, the roommate to Amy Adam’s character at a psychiatric facility. The role was originally much smaller but Jean-Marc Vallee was so impressed by the chemistry between Amy and Sweeney that he increased her role as much as he could so long as it made sense for the story. Amy’s character has words carved into her skin all over her body and the scenes in the hospital with the young and broken Sweeney were absolutely unforgettable examples of brilliant storytelling. To prepare for the small yet crucial role, Sweeney took the time to visit hospitals and talked with the young girls who’d self-harmed. Her second role in 2018 was in 7 out of 13 episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season where she plays a young child bride. Sweeney’s scenes with Elisabeth Moss and Max Minghella were among the most tender and emotionally soul-destroying of that season.

2019 came her big break as Cassie in HBO’s Euphoria which is an ongoing show and arguably the role she’s most known for about a group of high school students and their parents navigating a world of addiction, self-harm, social media, physical and sexual violence, generational repression, homo/transphobia and toxic masculinity. The show’s become a generational and cultural icon and has generated both praise and controversy for its realistic depictions of its topics. The role earned Sweeney an Emmy nomination and global recognition. That year she also had a small role as one of Charles Manson's loyal hippie followers in Quinton Tarrantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

During Covid, she worked on lockdown on Euphoria's second season as well as her role as Connie Britton’s spoiled daughter in The White Lotus for which she received her second Emmy nomination. Reality is her most recent work and may very well lead to an Oscar. Given the film’s release on MAX, she might be nominated for an Emmy for it instead but we’ll see. The beauty of Reality’s short run time is it makes rewatching a priority. Reality received 5 out of 5 stars on The Guardian and Tina Satter adapted the interrogation from the play of the same name she wrote that ended up on Broadway for a short yet praised run.

That’s the thing about success. The greater the praise, the more you read and hear things and conclude “I have to watch this”. You absolutely do. Reality is a claustrophobic nail-biting political drama/thriller with emotional devastation that makes you feel as though you’re being buried alive but with enough material and sensitivity to keep you fully engaged as though you’re watching a breaking news story on CNN.

Reality may very well end up as number one on my top ten list of 2023 films. Yes, it’s that good. Therefore, it’s saddening it wasn’t released in theaters but with an 82-minute runtime, I know it’s a lot to expect and it probably worked out for the best. Everyone streams now and I think this is a must-see for everyone. Its portrayal of ordinary communication being carried out against the backdrop of extremism reminds me of Kitty Green’s, The Assistant. I felt as I watched the interrogation unfold that I was watching something I wasn't supposed to be seeing. I don’t mean that it was wrong of me to watch it. I mean that I felt as though I was watching something that was illegal to watch. I almost expected the TV to shut off and an alarm to ring suggesting I’d violated something.

Nevertheless, I stayed with it. It’s a crucial moment in this country’s history. The importance of this story will be useful for the end of this year and all of the next. America was very lucky to have not gone into a Civil War over our political divide in 2016 and perhaps more miraculously, in 2020. Something tells me “Third time won’t be the charm”. Predicting the future is something you just can’t help but do when you watch Reality. It’s like getting blood drawn. You tell yourself don’t look, if you don’t look you won’t feel the needle, but we can’t help ourselves as we hold our breath staring down at the rich red color of the blood as the phlebotomist keeps changing the tubes. We just cannot look away and maybe we shouldn’t!

Gus. (2023). Reality (2023). TMDB. GUS. Retrieved July 8, 2023, from

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