Don't Look Back

Don’t Look Back (2020)

“Police say the man was a Good Samaritan, stabbed while trying to stop a mugging. Surveillance video shows the man bleeding to death on a sidewalk for an hour as 25 people pass by.”

We hear a news reporter saying these words, as footage of the scene is shown on screen, at the beginning of Don’t Look Back, whose working title was in fact ‘Good Samaritan’. Reports of similar incidents follow as the opening credits roll: people being assaulted or killed, while others walk by or merely film what is unfolding on their phone cameras. The last report tells of two such witnesses who uploaded their videos online, and “in an eerie coincidence, were later found dead.” So the feature – the first to have been written and directed by Jeffrey Riddick, best known for writing the story, and co-writing the screenplay, of James Wong’s franchise-spawning high-concept supernatural slasher Final Destination (2000) – sets itself up as a karmic tale of selfishness and voyeurism being punished, perhaps preternaturally. 

There is, however, often more to such stories of non-intervention than first meets the condemnatory eye. Exhibit A here is Caitlin Kramer (Kourtney Bell). Nine months after seeing her beloved father shot dead by a couple of burglars, and herself almost dying in the incident, Caitlin is out jogging one day in Bristol Park when she witnesses the sudden, vicious beating of philanthropist Douglas Helton (Dean J. West). Nobody present tries to stop the assailant, and Douglas dies – but it all happens very fast, and there is express (and not unreasonable) concern that the attacker may have a gun. Not only does Caitlin’s PTSD readily explain why she initially freezes, but she also, trauma notwithstanding, is very quick to call the police. The six eyewitnesses – including Caitlin – may briefly become media hate figures, especially after Douglas’ grieving brother Lucas (Will Stout) reveals their names at an ill-tempered press conference. That ought, however, to be the end of things. As long as these six stop looking back, life goes on.

This being a horror film, though, the complications are only beginning. As the guilt-ridden Caitlin – who is a woman of faith – starts seeing the ghost of bloody Douglas, cawing crows and Biblical references all around, the other witnesses start dying one by one in mysterious circumstances. Despite her controlling boyfriend Josh (Skyler Hart) begging her to see reason, and Police Sergeant Boyd (Jeremy Holm) insisting that she stop interfering with his investigation, Caitlin follows an irrational trail of strange signs and coincidences, in a race to make amends for her inaction before the vindictive past catches up with her.  

Don’t Look Back deserves real credit for centering a black woman as its protagonist. Yet no matter how unusual a heroine she may be in terms of representation, Caitlin is not particularly interesting as a character. There is never any doubt about her essential moral goodness, no matter how much she might be pilloried by the media – and her unambiguous freedom from blameworthiness ensures that we are hardly being challenged to question our own complicity as viewers and silent witnesses (as we might be were the film’s figure of identification somehow more morally suspect). Still, if Caitlin remains pure of heart even when she is not always seen as such, other characters deemed good will turn out to be less so, in a film that simultaneously condemns just looking on while asking us to look closer. “It’s right in front of you, if you choose to see it,” as a priest (Ben Bratt) says in his sermon on Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, and his words encompass an understanding of the film no less than of the Bible, as personal secrets and cryptic messages are hidden in plain sight. 

Don’t Look Back is a murder thriller dressed in the tropes of the occult and the ghost story. It is cleverly constructed and neatly overdetermined, and its extensive use of red herrings will keep you guessing, even if its pedestrian solution (or series of solutions, really) might have viewers less nodding along with satisfaction than shrugging with indifference. Perhaps it works better as a film about a damaged woman confronting her fears and overcoming her trauma – and about God (or at least the screenwriter) moving in mysterious ways. If Caitlin’s story ends on a mawkish note, there is a far more cynical double-sting in the tail, even if it is one that, again, leaves the impression that the film might have been more effective had it focused on its more morally compromised characters. For their contradictions and dilemmas offer a much more engaging reflection of our own mixed feelings about revenge – and about the kind of passive viewing of violence that will be familiar to any fan of horror cinema. 

Summary: Jeffrey Riddick’s feature debut is a supernatural murder mystery where it is not enough to be a casual onlooker.