Feature Narrative Reviews

Tag X (2019) – 3 stars

Director: Manuel Weiss

Writers: Jessica Renelt & Manuel Weiss

Cast: Carina Diesing, Tobias Kay, Reinhard Paul Seyer, Jolie Sarah Werner

Running time: 1hr 36mins

Starting at the end of the story, according to the final credits of Tag X (Day X), 100,000 children disappear in Germany every year, and 2,000 are never seen again. It is a tragic figure, but if Manuel Weiss’ heavy-handed thriller is representative of the cognitive powers of the German police, it is not an especially surprising one.

Our story centres on Tanja (Carina Diesing) following the disappearance of her teenage daughter Lilly (Jolie Sarah Werner). The relationship between parent and child has been strained in recent weeks, with the fifth anniversary of the death of Tanja’s husband, Lilly’s father. Exacerbating the situation, a strange figure has begun making sinister phone calls to Tanja, breathing heavily while clearly standing in the street outside. After substantial encouragement from her friend, Tanja reluctantly files a report with the police – but goes out of her way to conceal the situation from her daughter. Guess where this is heading…

Lilly is out with friends when a further phone call spooks her mother into encouraging her to immediately return home. Rather than explicitly warn her daughter that she is being stalked, or more vaguely insist she is in danger, Tanja leaves her orders infuriatingly vague, and so her daughter heads for home alone. When the inevitable occurs, Tanja seems blissfully unaware that she might have done anything differently, while happily pointing the finger at everyone else around her.

To an extent, it is believable that someone so lacking in common sense would behave in such an infuriating way and Diesing certainly delivers a believable characterisation of such a person – however, the rest of the cast struggle for the same reason. The worst example of this is our lead detective, Kommissar Schwarz; a botched trope who only viewers savvy to the thriller genre will recognise. The weathered face and scraggily beard of Tobias Kay’s shabbily dressed inspector give us the visual cues that he is our archetypal maverick sleuth – his superiors might not approve of his methods, but his team reveres him and by God he gets results… Unfortunately, the writing and delivery of the character serve us up something else entirely – to the extent someone uninitiated in the genre could only be left wondering “why the hell is this doofus in charge of a criminal investigation?”

Weiss and his collaborator Jessica Renelt produce a story which is so on the nose that even I was able to deduce the ‘twist ending’ about half way through the film. The problem with that is that, as much as I might enjoy feeling like Sherlock Holmes when I crack a case in a crime drama like this, the moment of realisation needs to occur at least close to that of the detective. Despite having interviewed the perpetrator of the kidnapping immediately after the case began – during which a number of obvious red flags are dangled in his face – Schwarz fails to join the dots until the film’s climax about an hour later.

While it would be fair to say Tobias Kay can only work with what he is given, his meek, mousey body language is a long way from what was required of this role. If this were the film’s way of flagging him up as an unusual outsider, that might still work – but it is not. From the way his colleagues seem to revere him, we get the impression he should be a great leader, who can win the respect from his team required to get great things. That is not what we see though – instead he seemingly wilts under the heat of the lighting, shrinking even from the obligatory back-slapping you would expect of the apparently fierce motivator. More Ole Gunnar Solskjær than Jurgen Klopp.

As Schwarz continues to flounder during the big case – taking his entire team half-way across Germany to chase a telegraphed red herring, Tanja, armed only with a smart-phone and Google-substitute, turns up evidence that at least takes her in the right direction, even if she doesn’t realise it. As she sits face to face with her daughter’s abductor, it is painfully clear to everyone observing what has happened and why – however Renelt and Weiss’ script still insists on Tanja spelling it out to us and an incredibly dangerous criminal, who she apparently has no desire to conceal her suspicion from as she sits alone in their deserted house. It stands in stark contrast to Clarice’s reserved realisation that she has unintentionally cornered Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs – a film to which Tag X bears an unfortunate resemblance.

A series of convoluted twists follow, which fortunately mean that everyone is conveniently still able to converge on the location of the kidnapper – before an unfortunately comic suicide sequence sees the gurning perpetrator pose daintily before firing a pistol through their chin. With only a minute of the action left, they have taken their knowledge of Lilly’s whereabouts to the grave – seemingly leaving her to starve to death in the coming weeks. What would have been an uncharacteristically dark and surprising twist is swiftly undone, however, with Schwarz finding that the kidnapper has literally drawn up a map – one so comprehensive that even Inspector Cleasau could not fail to save the day.

After all this, however, I should clarify that Tag X is not necessarily a bad film. Aside from some bizarre choices in blocking – where seemingly there was only one seat in any given set, so psychiatrists and sympathetic cops are left to awkwardly stand while conversing to the sitting Tanja, looming menacingly over the grief-stricken single mother – it is a technically competent piece, which features some gorgeous cinematography from Weiss, and an arresting soundtrack from Marko Cirkovic. At the same time, if you can ignore the rough edges, this is a serviceable story. As Block Island was to horror, this is to the thriller genre – and if told differently, it would be a decent addition to the medium it is emulating. The problem is, the writing and delivery of the script make it seem like it was designed by an AI.

A moderate lack of sense is arguably necessary for the sake of a thriller or horror story to move forward – but there is a blinding lack of comprehension from all of the key players here, as if some algorithm had drawn up a story based on its distilled encounters with other entries of the genre. This is not some nascent machine learning platform haphazardly applying narrative norms to generate nightmarish stock art, though. This is the product of living breathing human beings, who have not only seen how people behave in films, but have an understanding of what it means to live with grief, fear and anger.

To put it in proportion, there are many less competent films than Tag X – and many of them have been packaged up and placed on Amazon Prime for paying punters – so if you ever do come across it on a streaming platform, and are stuck for something to watch on autopilot after a long day, you could do a lot worse. With that being said, assuming the filmmakers want to do more than attract that kind of attention, and genuinely engage with lovers of thrillers and detective-driven crime drama, the construction of a credible lead sleuth is essential to work as a counter-balance against the incompetence of the supporting cast.

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