It was a few months ago that I saw promotional material for “Hacked”, a micro-budget Drama/Thriller feature from Matthew Festle and Matt Leal floating around on social media. 2020 has been a challenging year for all, especially those involved in the world of independent filmmaking. So with that in mind, I thought I’d do my part to support a seemingly passionate pair of filmmakers making a go of it – grabbing a copy of the film on DVD for twenty something dollars. Hacked is mostly a two-man show, one that takes place in the ever-expanding world of podcasting. Go-getter, Darren (played by Jackson Turner) runs a semi successful true crime podcast with his long time partner, Michael (played by Festle himself). The duo have differing personalities but it’s never been a problem – or at least until Michael started pushing boundaries and upsetting executives from “Readitt” (I believe it was?), a platform the show is tied to that allows it to remain sustainable. Lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur as Michael slowly loses control. The film also stars Shawn C. Phillips, Alex Maxson, Thom Michael Mulligan, and Lew Temple.
Whilst I’m not at all well versed when it comes to the ins and outs of podcasting, it takes a certain type of entertainer to truly engage the listener in interesting and enjoyable ways. Festle and Leal (sounds like a department store, right? haha) have used plenty of nouse and put their collective thoughts together to deliver a cost effective indie film with a premise that lends itself perfectly to living in isolation. Hacked runs a swift 60 minutes (plus credits) and contains minimal characters and just a few locations. Leal also served as the DP and Editor (in what is his first feature length film), where in which he presents us with a nice mix of conventional coverage as well as webcam footage. There’s drone footage, wide shots in the street, and plenty of medium close-ups amidst brief outdoor conversations. The audio track is sharp and the simplistic sound design helps with the tension level throughout. Much to my surprise, there was a primary synth score in the beginning which acts as a great throwback to some of the horror films of the 70’s and 80’s (although I’m not sure it entirely fits). I was really impressed by the standard of acting on show in Hacked. Amateur actors or those with less experience are often guilty of stilted dialogue delivery, and I’m glad that wasn’t the case here because the success of the film rests squarely on Turner and Festle. I found the tone of Jackson’s voice completely fitting and credible regarding the lead podcaster, and Matthew’s in the same boat when it comes to deftly depicting something amiss with Michael and his affinity for the macabre. You can tell there’s the beginnings of a downward spiral on the horizon. I was pleased to see this duo opt for a different reveal regarding the particulars of Michael’s meeting with a character by the name of Dr. Brennan – who he’s trying to get as a guest on the podcast. I was actually anticipating Darren contacting Brennan only to be told that the doctor never received any phone call from Michael – I was relieved they went another way with it.
It’s hard not to categorize Hacked as a rather predictable film with somewhat of a rushed ending, granted that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think if you’ve got a feeling you know where things are heading, perhaps the title and artwork (which I understand are all about marketability), in hindsight, give away too much. Given what I know now, I would’ve loved to have seen Matthew (and Co-Writer John) incorporate a few more visual cues regarding Michael’s steady decline. If you’re going to definitively foreshadow what’s to come you’re better off going the whole nine yards with it. The bulk of the dialogue and back and forth is extremely natural, though there’s an overuse of the word “like” that caught my attention at times. It was interesting to see YouTuber, Shawn C. Phillips (who I followed for years) pop up in here as Martin, a fellow podcaster with a competing show. I will say that this particular performance of his is a little uneven though. The podcasting content feels organic enough, but the general flow of his dialogue when he meets Michael at the park goes back to what I said earlier about those moments where actors struggle with instinct. He does improve across the course of the scene as the conversation between him and Michael gets more heated. There’s one gory moment in here that showcases a nice little practical effect, unfortunately the build up to it is on the weak side – further underlined by that early foreshadowing.
Hacked turned out to be one of those surprising little gems from the bargain bin (I mean it didn’t come from there, I bought it online but you catch my drift). With a miniscule budget of just a couple of thousand dollars, the creativity shown from Festle and Leal can be likened to films like Mark Duplass’s “Creep”, or Zach Donohue’s “The Den”. The run time is perfect, the technical aspects are handled very well, and the tension builds nicely. Turner and Festle do damn fine jobs in their respective leading roles, the latter particularly impressive considering he’s built a body of work mostly in sound and music. On the downside, the narrative and Michael’s arc are unlikely to present you with anything you won’t already see coming. Parts of the dialogue could’ve used a little work and Shawn’s acting is a touch uneven. I also could’ve gone for a few more interesting visuals conveying Michael’s slippery slope. At any rate, Hacked is still an impressive DIY micro-budget film made during an extremely challenging period and I think there’s plenty here to appreciate and enjoy. You can watch the official trailer below and be sure to pick up a copy of the film online and do your bit to support the little guy!
Hacked – 6/10