'Prime Time' Review: A Tense Polish Thriller That Holds The Viewer Hostage [Sundance 2021]

Ever since Peter Finch stormed in front of the TV studio cameras to declare that he's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, people — fictional or otherwise — have held a kind of twisted fascination with the parasitic relationship between broadcast television and its viewers. The ghoulish appeal of capturing the attention of an easily distracted public on a live broadcast with some shocking message has sadly permeated reality in harrowing ways. But what if said messenger never got in front of the camera?

That's the premise of Prime Time, a Polish hostage thriller set on New Year's Eve 1999, which stars Bartosz Bielenia (star of the Oscar-nominated Corpus Christi) as Sebastian, a man who takes a TV station hostage in an attempt to deliver a message to the whole country before the turn of the millennium. But before he gets the chance, the cameras shut down and the control room cuts to commercials, leaving Sebastian with two hostages and nowhere to deliver his message. What that message is, we don't know, nor will we find out throughout Prime Time, a deliberately withholding thriller that follows the chaos that ensues once a man with no clear-cut plan takes a TV station hostage.

The debut feature film of director Jakub Piatek, who co-writes the screenplay with Lukasz Czapski, Prime Time is a tense hostage thriller that is suffocating to the point of feeling airless. After the brisk sequence in which Sebastian takes the studio hostage, holding a security guard at gunpoint and quickly subduing the terrified host (Mira Kryle) of a late-night New Year's Eve contest, Prime Time becomes an exercise in waiting. Sebastian and the few staff people in the control room are at an impasse, as Sebastian demands to be let on air and the beleaguered producer (Malgorzata Hajewska-Krzysztofik) refuses, trying her best to defuse a situation she's untrained for, with a staff that's stretched thin as it is — most of the employees of the station having left for their New Year's Eve celebrations. Left with only two hostages — the aforementioned host and security guard — Sebastian finds himself stuck in a cage of his own making, restlessly pacing around the small studio as he struggles to maintain control as a squadron of impatient police get involved with the steadily escalating situation.

Prime Time is a tremendous showcase for Czapski, who gives a live-wire performance — agitated and liable to explode any second — crossed with the vulnerable rawness of an injured animal. Sebastian is the closest thing we get to a protagonist in this tangled thriller full of unsympathetic police detectives and blandly narcissistic TV personalities. His motives and the message that he so desperately wants to deliver to the nation never become clear, but it does become clear that he's a wounded soul, driven to these extremes by the banality of life and the spectacle of television. Czapski's naturally bulging eyes give a sense of perpetual anxiety, and he has a twitchy physicality to match. But what's astonishing about Czapski's performance is that it's more than just the stereotypical "unhinged man with a gun," but a multilayered take that humanizes the hostage-taker, even as it takes him to task for his extreme actions. He makes a call to a mystery man who he appears to want to impress, he is driven to trembling tears by the scalding words of his homophobic father, foolishly brought in by the police in an attempt to reason with Sebastian. And he strikes up a strange friendship with his two hostages, who express as much sympathy as they do revulsion for the man holding a gun to their head.

But the black box theater of Czapski's powerhouse performance can only take Prime Time so far. Largely taking place in one location, Prime Time's taut hostage drama starts to grow slack as it appears the rest of the performers can't match Czapski's energy. It's perhaps due to the film's insistence on being as withholding as possible — a subversion of the kind of crackling action and thrills that a hostage story usually holds. The police are held up by red tape and procedure, the producers in the control room held up by TV station bureaucracy. There's also some ideas about the paranoia surrounding Y2K floating around in there, but it's all too uncertain to tell.

Prime Time is a film of waiting on phone calls, on approvals, on waiting for the gun to go off, until those fraught nerves become tired nerves, looking for the whole thing to end. If there's one villain, it may be the system, and how much its invisible pressure ends up crushing broken people like Sebastian. But Prime Time isn't quite able to connect its ideas about the damaging effect of mass media and systemic rot, and the film ends up feeling like being trapped in a two-hour hostage situation./Film Rating: 6 out of 10