Blank isn't just for writers, but it specifically channels their fears

·4 min read
Heida Reed as Rita in Natalie Kennedy’s Blank.
Heida Reed as Rita in Natalie Kennedy’s Blank.

For a writer, there are few things more intimidating than the blank page. Creativity at its best comes organically, but books and articles live on deadlines, with a specified amount of copy required by a certain date. It’s this anxiety that’s at the heart of Natalie Kennedy’s film Blank, but it’s far from the only one.

Blocked novelist Claire (The L Word’s Rachel Shelley) has an old-fashioned phone answer machine—mainly because it’s awfully convenient for exposition—full of messages from her agent demanding to know where her next book is. In anxious search of a quick fix, she signs up for a 30-day retreat designed to help writers. The space isn’t so different from her own sparsely furnished residence, but it does come with an ample supply of wine, and a customizable Wayne Brady hologram. And it lets her outside to jog through dead trees every morning. AI and two hand scanners aside, however, it mostly appears to be a nice rustic retreat. No annoying humans are around to get in the way of the creative process, a feature that will eventually become quite the bug.

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It also comes with a creepy android, because nothing spurs the imagination quite like a super-strong sentient mannequin named Rita (Icelandic actress Heida Reed, Poldark) that sits creepily in the corner after finishing its daily chores. The Clippy-ish Wayne Brady A.I., whom Claire dubs “Henry,” handles food orders, chess games, and casual conversation as needed.

Brady appears to have been cast precisely because of the old Chappelle’s Show joke about how comfortable he makes middle-aged white women feel, and it plays perfectly. Since that’s the same demographic that’s also likely to hate platitude-spouting, artificial-looking younger women, Reed’s Rita is equally perfect—though not necessarily conducive to creativity. The film’s title could refer equally to her personality and Claire’s empty page. As bland as Rita may seem, though, she at least knows her way around a broom and the kitchen.

When malware invades the safe space, erasing Rita’s daily memories, the robot turns threatening, imprisoning Claire until she finishes her book. Naturally, she also appoints herself the one to decide what constitutes “finished;” as a speed-reader, she can detect filler or plagiarism with ease. With everything else in the building controlled by AI, and Henry similarly degrading, Claire’s retreat transforms into a prison. Of course, the pressure might all be by design—a kind of stress-based incentive calculated to motivate Claire specifically. If not, it’s a deathtrap, especially when her food supply begins to run out.

The “feature-length Twilight Zone episode” film subgenre always relies upon sticking the landing—and Blank, by diving into its main character’s emotional life and subconscious, renders a more satisfying outcome than if it merely depended upon plot mechanics. In addition to her external pressures, Claire is plagued by nightmares of her tyrannical, blind mother Helen (producer Rebecca-Clare Evans), who forced her at a very young age to serve as typist, editor, and sounding board for her own work. Evans’ classic monstrousness serves as a marked contrast to Rita’s calculated, Stepford-wife menace.

BLANK (2022) Official Trailer — Thriller Movie (HD)

At one point, Claire simply types “TheEndTheEndTheEnd” over and over, recalling The Shining, and Repulsion also feels like an influence as dreams and reality mix after her days of isolation. And casual viewers may see it as an unsettling parable about reliance on technology. But especially for writers, much of this experience will feel as familiar as the blank page itself: the self-torture and pressure, the ideas you can’t be sure your subconscious didn’t steal, the lack of understanding from anyone outside one’s process, looking in. Horror fans will look on Blank and perhaps fear the subtle menace in Rita’s unsettlingly even-keeled, unceasing suggestions that Claire might be stressed and should lie down. Those who face writer’s block in real life may hear their own built-in excuses in her voice.

Blank needn’t hit you on that particular level to resonate, though. The day-to-day frustrations of not being heard, the childhood trap laid by a bad parent in which every choice is the wrong one, the new tech toys that don’t work quite as they should—these are just a few of the film’s relatable themes. When the all-important moment of catharsis that every good scary movie requires comes around, it’s palpable. But writers, and other creative types, just might feel it a little bit extra.