In Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion, a man named James, played by Harry Shum Jr., is mourning the loss of his wife, Hannah, who has disappeared three years ago in 1996. James’ solitary life of working as a media archivist, moving VHS tapes to disc, is interrupted when he comes across one suspicious broadcast that quickly leads him down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, changing his life forever.
Right off the bat, Broadcast Signal Intrusion oozes noir vibes with a sprinkling of retro and The Matrix peppered in there. Set in 1999 Chicago, Broadcast Signal Intrusion is a familiar story told through a completely new lens. Piggybacking off of the trope of a lonely and desperate man consumed by grief, as we so often see in noir stories, James is lured into the mysterious world of radio pirates. When he comes across what is known as a broadcast signal intrusion during one of the programs he is archiving, the intrusion he sees is disturbing and eery and immediately sparks his interest.
A leap down the rabbit hole reveals that this intrusion is known by the fanatics as the SAL-E Sparx unsolved mystery hack. Of all the hacks conducted by pirates, the SAL-E Sparx one remains unsolved by the FBI. This leads him down a trail where he encounters creepy dudes in alleys, an ex-FCC bureau chief, someone called a “phreaker,” and an enigmatic woman named Alice (Kelley Mack). Along the way, James realizes that the multiple intrusions coincide with missing women, one of them was broadcasted on the day after his wife went missing, November 23, 1996.
Spotting this connection, James becomes obsessed. He loses his job, he becomes completely consumed by finding the people behind the intrusion, sure that he will find answers to his questions. He begins hallucinating and comes home to a ransacked home. We learn that most of the people attached to this mystery have been consumed by it.
I won’t spoil the rest of the film, but it’s safe to say that Broadcast Signal Intrusion unravels further and further. There is more gore, more chaos, and even some scenes that feel like they’ve been plucked from True Detective. Some applause should be given to Shum, who does a great job of playing a man who has spiraled down in his life, consumed by obsession. He doesn’t have the best chemistry with Mack, despite how much time he must spend with her on-screen. Some of that may be due to the fact that the Alice character is woefully underdeveloped.
Sometimes Gentry’s direction and the editing of the film are too chaotic. It’s jarring in a bad way. But as the film reaches its climax, you can’t help but lean in. You’ve invested the time in, you want to know the secret. It’s not necessarily the most satisfying ending, but it is one that is apt for a story filled with so many winding twists and turns. I don’t think Gentry quite sticks the landing when it comes to telling his story, but he gives it his best shot. The strength in this is the mood that he sets and the atmosphere of the film. He needs to work a bit on the follow-through, but the strong leading actor helps.
This film review was based on the premiere at SXSW 2021.