Author: Chris Sparling
Writer’s Potential: 9
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When three coworkers make a late-night stop at an ATM, they’re trapped and taunted by a mysterious man with an unclear agenda.
DAVID, 27, arrives for work at an urban highrise bank. A montage depicts his day as a financial advisor: starting out happy and optimistic, but quickly getting crushed by the stress and difficulty of the day’s market. At the end of the day, he has to make a guilty phone call to a client who has lost a lot of money, the week before Christmas. COREY, 28, arrives at David’s desk to invite him out for the evening. He overhears the end of David’s conversation and tries to convince David it’s not his fault. David feels horrible about the loss. Corey tries to cheer him up by saying it’s EMILY’s last day and that David should come out after work and try to ask her out again. David doesn’t want to repeat the humiliation he felt a year ago, but Corey manages to convince him. David watches Corey get increasingly drunk as he yammers obnoxiously to mutual friends. He awkwardly tries to talk to Emily, but he’s waited too long—she’s planning to leave the party. Desperate, David rushes out to the parking lot with a winter hat he knows isn’t hers, just to give himself a reason to talk to her. He asks her out awkwardly and causes her to miss her cab. He offers to give her a ride home, but Emily demures, saying she lives way out in the suburbs. David insists, so she agrees.
David goes back into the bar to gather his things when Corey sees him leaving and insists on a ride home—David had promised him earlier, and Corey won’t take the hint that he’s no longer welcome. David and Emily sit awkwardly in David’s car while Corey yammers on David’s cell phone, asking a friend to search the bar for his own phone, which he left behind. The friend finds it, just as David’s phone craps out. David tries to put it in the charger, but it slips. He lets it go, not wanting to freak out Emily by bending over her legs. Emily is cold, so David tosses his coat over her like a blanket. Corey belligerently demands food, noting a local pizza place that is open all night. He says he’ll only be a few minutes, but they need to stop by an ATM first, because the place is cash-only. They stop at an otherwise empty supermarket, which has a 24-hour ATM vestibule separate from the store. Because of the bad neighborhood, it’s enclosed in glass and requires the scanning of an ATM card in order for the door to open. While Corey goes to get the money, David makes an awkward apology. Emily thinks David’s nervousness is cute.
When Corey takes too long, David gets out of the car to see what the problem is. Not wanting to wait in the car, Emily follows. Corey’s card won’t work, so David uses his own card and gets out $100. They’re ready to go, when Emily suddenly stops—she sees something in the dark parking lot. The shadowy figure of a large, intimidating MAN. He simply stands and stares. The trio wonder who the Man is. Corey assumes he’s waiting to use the ATM, but David and Emily fear he wants to rob them. Annoyed, Corey steps toward the door—the instant he does, the Man steps closer to the ATM. Corey freezes, reconsidering. Emily wants to call the police, but Corey shouts at the Man, asking what he wants. The Man remains silent, staring. They don’t think he looks like a homeless person, but they don’t have a clue what he wants. They hear a noise—ROBERT (40s), a harmless man, is walking his dog through the parking lot. He unclips the leash and lets the dog run into the nearby woods, where a conspicuous industrial hose leads from a cistern to the supermarket. Robert makes small talk with the Man, who bashes Robert’s face in, beating him to death, taking his wallet, and going back to staring at the ATM.
Shocked, the trio decide to call the police—but nobody has a phone. Corey left his at the bar, David’s is out of power, and Emily’s is in her purse, in the car. They search the ATM for a panic button, but they find nothing. They have no way to alert anyone, and no way out. The ATM has poor heating (designed for only short trips), the time/temperature sign on the supermarket says it’s -5°F and they have six hours to sunrise. Emily wonders why the Man doesn’t come inside. David speculates it’s because he doesn’t have an ATM card. Emily wonders if Robert had an ATM card. This makes them all nervous. David gets his keys from Emily, deciding to make a run for his car. The Man sees this and edges toward David’s car. He gets into the unlocked car and fiddles around inside, eventually popping the trunk. He tosses aside a bunch of junk, including a folding lawn chair, before finding a tire iron and a tool kit. Now he’s armed, but he disappears, out of view from the vestibule. After a few moments of consideration, they start hearing banging—from the other side of the vestibule, as if the Man is trying to beat his way through the wall. Before long, the lights go out, replaced by much dimmer emergency lights. The Man returns to stare at them. David tries to shatter the glass walls, assuming that will trigger an alarm. The glass won’t budge. Corey and Emily join in, but it’s no use. Emily notices a sprinkler and wonders if the others have a lighter—nope. David sees a police car cruising along the edge of the parking lot. He shouts for help to no avail. The car drives away.
David hatches another plan: he’ll take all his money out of the ATM. It only has a daily limit of $500, so he can only take out $400 more. He asks Corey to take out $500, but his card still won’t work. Emily realizes something: if Corey’s card doesn’t work, but he still got past the card-scanner door lock…that means the door lock isn’t working. After letting this sink in, David continues to think of ways to give the Man enough money to leave them alone. Emily’s ATM card is in her purse, so she offers up some fancy earrings. David insists Corey give up an heirloom watch he wears. Corey doesn’t want to, but David forces the issue. He puts everything in a deposit envelope, which he quickly kicks to the Man. He catches sight of the Man on the side of the vestibule, using David’s tools to unsuccessfully open a side door to the vestibule. The Man takes a few steps toward the envelope, and David uses the distraction to sprint toward his car. The Man immediately gives chase. David gets into his car and discovers the Man has ripped apart his ignition. He manages to get Emily’s phone but can only dial 911 (not send) before the Man gets to him. He manhandles David, getting the phone away from him, but David manages to get out of his grip and run back into the vestibule. The Man stops 10 feet short of the vestibule, seemingly daunted. He smashes Emily’s phone and pockets the envelope of money and valuables, then goes back to work.
Emily and Corey peer through a metal grate into the room the Man is trying to get into. They theorize it’s the place where they restock the ATM. Corey considers pulling off the grate and sending Emily through the hole, then distract the Man so she can get out and run for help, but David doesn’t think it’s big enough to fit even Emily. Emily comes up with an idea: she heard that if you punch in an ATM code backwards, it’ll automatically alert the police, like a secret message. Corey thinks it’s an urban legend, citing “palindrome” ATM codes like 4224, which can’t be reversed. Emily thinks it’s worth a try, but the only result is the ATM eating David’s card. David wonders why this is happening. Emily entertains the possibility that he knows them, somehow. Corey brings up the client whose money David lost. David dismisses it, pointing out that the Man was already here, with no transportation. He couldn’t have followed them from the bar, and even if he did, why would he have killed Robert? David figures he wanted to rob the ATM, but they got in the way, but Corey doesn’t think that makes sense—they didn’t see him until after they got their money and were ready to go. He could have just stuck to the shadows but didn’t. As the conversation breaks down, all three discover they’re suffering from the early stages of hypothermia.
Emily spots a security guard car. They beat on the door and shout for his help. The security guard pulls up, looking concerned, but when they realize it’s not a real cop, Corey assumes he can’t help them—he’s not armed and not affiliated with the real police. Through the door, which they refuse to open, they beg for help. The security guard has trouble hearing them over the wind. Just as he realizes what they’re saying and sees Robert’s corpse—the Man bashes in his head with the tire iron. Emily starts to panic. Suddenly, the Man enters the vestibule. Freaking out, David lunges at him. He and Corey fight the Man, who fights back, and before long, they’ve strangled him to death. They breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over—except the Man is still outside, watching them. The trio are horrified. It turns out the man they killed was a similarly dressed, similarly built man who simply wanted to use the ATM on his way to a third-shift custodial job.
Corey searches the janitor’s body for a cell phone, but he doesn’t have one. Things break down between the trio—David starts to blame Corey, while Corey blames David, and Emily starts to break down because of the hypothermia (which effects her smaller body more quickly). The Man watches, emotionless, as David and Corey begin to fight. Emily notices the Man is out of sight again. Angry and not thinking clearly, Corey decides he’s going to leave, despite the possible consequences. He gets a few yards out before the Man appears, brutally killing Corey with a screwdriver. David and Emily stare, stunned. David blames himself for Corey’s death and dragging Emily into this situation. Emily’s more pessimistic, disappointed that they all just stared there, assuming that because they haven’t done anything wrong, they’d be saved. What’s happening isn’t anyone’s fault but their own and the Man’s.
They hear some banging. Silently, they listen, trying to figure out what will happen next. Corey suddenly appears, beating on the door, not quite dead. David and Emily let him in and try to tend to their wounds despite lacking supplies and medical training. Enraged, David smashes the ATM with the wastebasket, hoping that will trigger an alarm. He bashes the screen, but all this does is destroy the camera that’s been recording their every movement since they entered the vestibule. Before long, water begins to pour from the heating vent—the Man has moved the industrial hose. That’s what all the noise was earlier. David and Emily struggle to move Corey’s body up to the signing shelf, but it’s futile. He’s dead. As the janitor’s body rises with the water, Emily notices something—a pack of cigarettes. She searches his body for a lighter.
Once she finds the lighter, they fill the wastebasket with as much dry paper as they can find, and they light it. David stands on the signing shelf, trying to reach the fire sprinkler, but he’s not tall enough. Emily demands to get on his shoulders, but it’s awkward and difficult for the hypothermia-suffering pair to position themselves properly under the sprinkler. After a great deal of effort, they get it, and a noisy alarm and strobe light blare. Unfortunately, it also starts spraying water down from above, causing the vestibule to fill even faster. The signing shelf cracks, causing them both to collapse. Emily smashes her head and falls into the water, dead. David crumbles, seeing the corpses floating in the water, knowing there’s no way out for him, either.
The Man kicks David’s car into neutral, stopping it in front of the security car. He uses the security car to ram David’s car into the vestibule, shattering the glass. Water pours out. David looks at the Man, who simply sits in David’s old lawn chair, watching, motionless. Blinded by rage, David emerges from the vestibule, grabs some lighter fluid from his car, douses his coat in it, lights it on fire, and tosses it on top of the Man, who doesn’t even attempt to fight back. David jabs the screwdriver into the Man’s gut—before realizing this isn’t the Man at all. This is the security guard, whom the Man propped up in the chair. The Man, meanwhile, is in the ATM vestibule, staring at David. Just before David attempts to go after him, the security guard’s pepper spray explodes from the pressure caused by the fire. David is stunned and blinded by the pepper spray, and the Man closes in for the kill—
—when police and fire officials arrive. The Man disappears into the shadows. David still has the screwdriver in his hand. The police order him to drop the weapon, but he’s so confused and disoriented, he doesn’t listen. They throw him to the ground. David begs for help, but the police don’t believe him. They handcuff him and throw him in a patrol car. A montage shows the police investigating the crime: the broken security camera; Corey’s screwdriver wounds; David’s toolkit being used to break into the ATM; in David’s trunk, they find Robert’s wallet, the deposit envelope filled with cash and jewels, and Emily’s cell phone with 911 still ready to dial; security camera footage of David bashing the ATM; David strangling the janitor; and, worst of all, no sign of the Man anywhere on the security camera footage. The reason he never came near the vestibule wasn’t because of the lock—it’s because he knew he camera’s sight lines. And, from the police’s vantage point, it looks like David did the crimes.
Meanwhile, as the sun rises over the horizon, the Man pulls an apron out of a locker room, then steps out into the supermarket, where he joins a dozen other cashiers as morning commuters do their shopping. The Man eyes the ATM vestibule, which still has signs of last night’s carnage, emotionless and composed.
Until its last 10 pages, ATM is a phenomenal script, a great single-location thriller in the vein of Phone Booth. The writer does an exceptional job of building suspense and piling on difficulties without every veering too far from the ATM vestibule. The main characters are interesting and well-defined through their reactions to their circumstances and interactions with each other. The thing that kills it is a horrible twist ending, which undermines everything that came before it. As written, it merits a disappointed consider.
The first act does a superb job of quickly establishing each of the main characters’ jobs, personalities, and relationships to one another, before thrusting them into the ATM. The writer also does an excellent job of addressing the cell phone problem most movies face: rather than going with the overused “no signal,” he comes up with clever reasons why none of the three main characters have access to a cell phone while within the ATM. Once the writer introduces “the Man,” it’s simply a matter of building suspense and raising the stakes, as the characters start to realize they’re trapped and need to figure out a way to either get out or alert the authorities from within this confined space.
The second act is where the script really shines. This is a writer who knows how to construct a slick, economical thriller. Reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, the Man manages to become a terrifying menace without ever uttering a word, or even coming out of the shadows. In addition to finding a way to escape or trigger an alarm, the characters have the challenge of figuring out the Man’s agenda (and, more importantly, his plans for them) without any hints beyond creepy sounds and the cold-blooded murder of anybody who comes anywhere near the ATM. With their failure to accomplish anything, and hypothermia setting in, the characters inevitably turn on each other, and the writer does a great job of making this play out in a believable fashion.
The third act continues to raise the stakes by killing off main characters, leaving David even more isolated as the Man escalates his torment of the ATM dwellers. David’s ultimate breaking point is satisfying, and even though it’s a bit of a cheat that his confrontation and murder of “the Man” turns out to be the dead security guard, it’s a surprise that works. Unfortunately, it’s followed by two surprises that don’t work at all, and are, in fact, so bad that they undermine all the great material the script has prior to it. First, David’s arrested for all the crimes based on laughable circumstantial evidence that any first-year law student could counteract with minimal effort. Second, the true identity of the Man is revealed: a vaguely sociopathic cashier at the supermarket. The writer wants to go for the big twist at the end, but it’s deeply unsatisfying to see the protagonist hauled off for no good reason. More than that, it opens up tons of unanswered questions that will leave audiences annoyed: what happens when the cops find harder evidence supporting David’s theory that a mystery man did everything? Does the Man just want to torment anyone who uses this ATM? If so, why aren’t the cops suspicious that insane crimes keep occurring at this particular ATM? It’d almost be better to never know his identity or agenda than to give him one that undermines his previous actions.
The Man remains shrouded in mystery, and that’s fine until the horrible twist at the end. All the other characters are pretty solid. The writer does a nice job of keeping all three consistent and well-developed, but he does even better at believably showing how this experience changes them over the course of a few short hours. As their survival begins to depend on taking action, David’s able to put aside his fear and do something, although Corey (the brash, drunk man of action before him) gets killed for making a bold move. It’s a little too easy to pin his motivation to Emily’s death, but the writer does a good job of developing their relationship quickly (and establishing that David has harbored feelings for her for a long time).
The twist ending is the only thing preventing this script from being an enthusiastic recommend. If the filmmakers make the ending less of a cheat, it’ll be a great, commercial film.