The Vault (2017)

The Vault first published by Sight & Sound, October 2017

Review: The Vault opens with the sound of a distorted male voice reporting a robbery in progress and a hostage situation. The credits then play over a beautifully edited montage of overlapping images: headlines about the Centurion Trust Bank siege, blueprints (2D and 3D) of the bank’s interior, and impressionistic close-up shots of the horrific situation inside, as injured people with money bags over their heads are dragged into the vault and set alight with petrol, turning the whole building into an inferno. All this unfolds to the ironically calming tune of Tommy James and the Shondell’s 1968 classic Crimson and Clover.

With the credits over, we see the pristine bank exterior, and assistant bank manager Ed Maas (James Franco) inside, making himself a drink in the staff kitchen. As he emerges into the atrium, Andrew Shulkind’s circling camera picks out two women acting suspiciously. Indeed sisters Leah and Vee Dillon (Francesca Eastwood, Taryn Manning), with the help of their brother Michael (Scott Haze) and two male accomplices (Keith Loneker, Michael Milford), are about to rob the bank. So it is natural to assume that that the film’s opening sequence was a flashforward, and that the rest of the film will catch up with its introduction, as these five desperate criminals will break their ‘one rule’ not to harm anyone – indeed they break it almost as soon as the robbery begins – and the situation will somehow deteriorate over time into the hostage holocaust already foreshadowed.

In fact the prologue was a flashback to events from 1982 (the same year that Joan Jett and the Blackheart’s cover of Crimson and Clover came out), but much as the bank today is built on the foundations of that older, fire-damaged building, there is the sense that a cover version of a past tragedy is being played out “over and over” (as the song’s lyrics put it). Where Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) anatomised a raid on a bank concealing traces of a terrible history, The Vault adds its own supernatural spin, while still retaining a ghostly version – or versions – of the ‘inside man’, forever reliving the horrors of the past. For, working with his regular writing partner Conal Byrne, director Dan Bush (The Signal, 2007; FightFuckPray, 2008; The Reconstruction of William Zero, 2014) has concocted a genre-bending haunted bank movie where time itself vaults in mysterious ways, where heist meets poltergeist, and where the past seems destined to repeat itself, with accumulating interest.

Tension here is built upon questions (eventually resolved) of ethical motive: are the sack-covered or mask-wearing entities in the basement attempting to reiterate what happened earlier, or to correct it – or indeed a bit of both? And is Ed, who helps the robbers while claiming he just wants to minimise harm to customers and staff, being entirely transparent in his conduct? Unraveling in a historical building that is a marbled locus of materialist concerns, Bush’s film breaks into the Dillon siblings’ moral vaults and reveals who they really are on the inside.

Synopsis: 1982, an anonymous US city. In the Centurion Trust Bank, a masked bankrobber loses his mind during a prolonged siege, and commits atrocities which culminate in setting alight staff and customers in the vault.

Present day. To clear their brother Michael’s debts, estranged sisters Leah and Vee join him and hired criminals Cyrus and Kramer in a raid on the Centurion Trust. When they find the ground-floor vault near empty of cash, assistant bank manager Ed Maas agrees to help them disarm the bank’s alarms in return for their promise not to harm anyone else, and informs them that the old basement vault contains $6 million. After drilling into the vault’s door, Kramer is surrounded by dark figures – and drills into his own head. Cyrus is turned upon by terrifying figures who he had thought were hostages, and shoots himself. Head teller Susan Cromwell tells an incredulous Leah of the bank’s history, and of the ghosts that haunt it. Armed police, led by Detective Iger, surround the bank. Believing an insider is in contact with the police, Leah is about to torture Susan, when Michael intervenes. As he opens a pipe to serve as their escape route, Michael sees a ghost. When police storm in, Leah and Vee escape with the money, while Michael sets fire to the ghosts and himself. Confused police establish that Ed was assistant manager – and killed – in 1982. The masked  robber’s ghost catches up with the sisters outside.

© Anton Bitel