A Michael M. Bilandic movie feels like a fever dream set in a pinball machine at a Manhattan museum. Shades of neon complement imagery of street-smart locals and art scene intellectuals. The monotone voices of hipsters mash up with the condescending sounds of east coast elites. Project Space 13, Bilandic’s latest release, retains the surrealistic elements of past films such as Hellaware (2013) and Jobe’z World (2018) while showcasing his evolution as a screenwriter. The director, a former Abel Ferrera assistant and Kim’s Video & Music employee, operates most efficiently when prioritizing lively and character-driven dialogue, rather than musing about pop culture ironies via spaced-out, twenty-something New Yorkers. Now streaming as part of Mubi’s “Anarchy in NYC” retrospective, Project Space 13 taps into lockdown dread but transcends above convenient COVID-era concepts like “Everything Sucks” or “We’re All in This Together.”
Project Space 13 stars Keith Poulson as Nate, a New York City artist who previously documented a group of goth rappers in Hellaware. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, he attempts to spend 120 days in a cage while being “tortured” by a customized robot named Zebos. During a street riot, museum curator Pieter (Jason Grisell) flees and hires two security guards — Theodore Bouloukos and Hunter Zimny as Ace and Evan, respectively — to protect the art installation. The three men initially clash over trivial matters but find common ground by sharing information and listening to each other.
With Project Space 13, Bilandic tightens up every aspect of his filmmaking. It’s a clean piece of work, one that succeeds with its strong character dialogue and confident performances. Bilandic gives each actor a moment to shine with extensive backstory speeches, all of which benefit the character dynamics while offering subtle commentaries about partisan politics and career opportunism. Based on the filmmaker’s past productions, one might expect Nate to be a one-note character; a pretentious NYC artist who just doesn’t listen to others. But in this particular setting, Nate must pay special attention to the men responsible for his safety. This smart premise allows Bouloukos to riff as the COVID-denying Ace, a Richard Jewell-like figure who means well but just can’t catch a break. Meanwhile, Zimny’s Evan both looks and talks like an Alex Ross Perry character, someone who practices “face yoga,” slings one-liners and makes sharp observations about others. (Note: Bilandic used to work with Perry at the aforementioned Kim’s Video & Music.)
Project Space 13 features the cinematography of prolific DP Sean Price Wiliams, who creates an intimate setting with his long-time collaborator, Bilandic. A traditional black-and-white indie approach might’ve emphasized the differences amongst the main protagonists; however, the filmmakers’ neon color palette aligns with the personalities of Nate, Ace and Evan, all of whom are emotionally detached from the outside world and may in fact feel more comfortable in their shared and surrealistic environment. Similarly, Pieter spends most of Project Space 13 trapped inside a vehicle, with the gaming-style sound design creating a pinball machine effect; a smart set-up for a third-act oceanside monologue about the human condition.
In films like Hellaware and Jobe’z World, Bilandic favors the abstract over character development. Project Space 13 is much more refined and practical; the jokes land better because of the depth and organic qualities. There’s the timely existential dread of a 2021 film like The Humans and the conversational humor of classic 80s movies such as Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre and Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Bilandic could indeed have a long career making Weird Cinema productions — in which young and liberal NYC characters feel trapped by the present moment and their limitations — but it seems like he’s ready to take the next step by fully exploring the complexities of both white-collar and blue-collar characters from different parts of the world.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor and chief film critic.