Adventures in Streaming: The Vault (2017)

* reviews of things i found on (mostly) netflix *
* now with spoilers *

The Vault is a supernatural heist movie.

The opening-credit scenes show clippings from a bank robbery in 1982, during which the hostages were killed and the bank set on fire. As the film begins, we see Ed in the bank breakroom, having apparent flashbacks to that bank robbery – clearly he had been there in 1982, and it still haunts him.

Two women posing as a job-seeker and a customer reveal themselves to be armed bank robbers; three firefighters who claim to be fighting a fire “down the street” turn out to be the women’s accomplices. They quickly take over the bank, putting the hostages in the vault and demanding money. When they’re given all the money that the tellers can find, the amount is far less than expected, and the robbers become angry and anxious.

To prevent any violent escalations, Ed gets up, identifies himself as a bank manager, and admits there’s a second vault in the basement with millions of dollars inside. The robbers split up, some staying with the hostages, some going to the basement vault, and one staying with Ed in an office where they can see the basement via security cameras.

This is the beginning of the supernatural portion of the movie, where we meet the ghosts from 1982: the masked robber and his charred and/or bloodied hostages. The robbers meet the ghosts too, and their heist goes decidedly sideways.

The atmosphere of Vault is consistent but, more importantly, not all that creepy. It looks like any other heist movie the entire time, even when ghosts are physically terrorizing their victims. This has the ironic effect of making the ghost images more startling and eerie; we feel the way we would if we just looked up and saw a ghost standing at the end of our couch. The ghost scenes are also orchestrated in a way that doesn’t immediately suggest they’re ghosts – they might very well be bank patrons and workers that we haven’t meant yet, that Ed knew were in the basement and could overpower robbers who had separated from one another. So whether they’re ghosts or not, the audience has that “ooo, they got you!” feeling as these unknown people creep up and surround the bad guys.

Ed, whose character has so many unpleasant memories of the earlier robbery, avoids becoming the stereotype of emotionally-compromised-hero-looking-for-redemption; he doesn’t get more and more agitated or battle increasingly loud inner demons while trying to make this event play out differently than the last one. Instead, he acts like a bank manager should act: prioritizing the safety of the staff and patrons, remaining deadpan-calm while dealing with the robbers, watching impassively as events play out so that he can better assess what to do next. He obviously knows that something is waiting in the basement, and he’s not surprised by any of the things that start happening.

The lead teller, Susan (as well as some others), is fairly open about the supernatural experiences she and her coworkers have had in the bank – she tells the robbers that she believes the masked gunman from 1982 haunts the basement. Of course, the robbers don’t listen … why would they? Susan doesn’t even say it in a frightened manner; she says it as though she’s revealing that there might be rats. Again, this makes the paranormal events seem more unexpected and therefore a bit more real.

The robbers respond to the ghost encounters in a very believable manner, and their actions make sense.

The final reveal of the film is satisfying. The bad-guy-wins horror ending is well-done – we don’t feel like we don’t understand what just happened – and since the good guys were watching as one set of bad guys battled another set of bad guys, we end up with the good guys winning too … so it’s a fairly good “heist” thriller too, in that regard. There’s enough of a twist that we want to go back and watch it again for clues. It’s a two-genre film, but both genres are blended throughout rather than starting as one and ending as the other – this makes all the events seem more realistic and more immediate.

James Franco plays Ed, and since at the time of the film he was coming off of some of his more zany-character roles, we’re kind of waiting for him to be that person now … but he is a straight-arrow, sedate bank manager the whole way, which makes his character seem a little more “cool” and also supports the realism: it seems less of a “role” and more of the way real people deal with real situations.

Overall, it’s not particularly more than a solid installment in the ghost genre, and the heist aspect is fairly by-the-numbers, but it’s done well, with good acting, good pacing, and clear resolution. It also creates an ambiguity about just who is “bad” and who is “good” and who we should be rooting for, which is an interesting layer.

It’s worth watching, even twice.


9 out of 10