Reality is an unnerving reminder of the precarious times we live in: Sydney Film Festival Review

Described as a “verbatim description” of what happened to Reality Winner (yes, that’s an actual name), an American Air Force veteran, who was suspected of leaking classified government information to the media while she was working as a translator with top-secret security clearance in June 0f 2017, Tina Satter‘s stage play “Is This A Room” has been given the filmic treatment in Reality, an impossibly tense, singular thriller that revels in its discomfort over the course of its tight 83 minutes; almost all played out in real time too.

Lifted from the FBI transcript that was born from the recording of Winner’s solicitation by a duo of FBI Agents, Justin Garrick and R Wallace Taylor, outside her Georgia home, Satter’s film opens with the declaration that “the dialogue in this movie is taken entirely from the transcript of that [FBI] recording”, letting the audience know that as much as some of what unfolds may feel exaggerated or added in for dramatic effect, it’s all grounded in, well, reality.

Headlined by a stripped-back, vulnerable Sydney Sweeney – the captivating actress miles away from the manipulative teen she excelled at portraying in the first series of The White Lotus (a little bit before everyone caught on to push it to mainstream awareness) – Reality is an uncomfortable film to watch from its opening, where Reality is greeted outside her home by the aforementioned Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchánt Davis).  They repeatedly stress that her cooperation is “completely voluntary”, but their put-upon smiles, forced small talk and general passive-aggressive nature suggests Reality has little to no agency in the moments that unfold.

As the small talk about the nature of her pets – the only thing she seems primarily concerned about in the initial stages of Garrick and Taylor’s investigation – merges with the escalating threat of the FBI’s body language in how they approach Reality overall, the film submits to a tension that becomes unbearable.  Whether you are familiar with Reality’s story and the ultimate outcome or not, it doesn’t take away from how nervous as an audience member you feel in watching her balance the truth with the slightest of evasion in the hopes that her guilt will be guised by a certain naivety.

Despite its true story basis, there are still certain elements of the narrative that the film itself redacts, utilised in an ingenious manner where the transcript itself will be shown on screen with the names mentioned blotted out or, if in an acted dialogue scene, will see the characters themselves momentarily disappear from the screen.  It’s one of the only moments that takes audiences out of the drama, but not in a manner that upsets or the ruins the film as a whole; and given the jail term punishment that Reality herself was sentenced to – one that many believe was unusually harsh for her actions – it makes sense that those behind the film would still want to be as safe as possible for a film that pushes the boundaries on public domain and the information possible on the darkest corners of the web.

Though more a film that will earn its wholly passionate response from an American audience, what Satter has created through both her stage play and this film is a reminder of the precarious times we live in.  An exercise in the challenge of authority, Reality is a stranger-than-fiction experience bolstered by its central performance and masterful handling of both its horrific and darkly comedic mentality.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Reality is screening as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival, running between June 7th and 18th, 2023.  For more information head to the official SFF page.

Reality is scheduled for a national release in Australian theatres from June 29th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.