The Institute (2012)

Genres - Culture & Society  |   Sub-Genres - Sociology  |   Release Date - Oct 11, 2013 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 92 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
  • AllMovie Rating
  • User Ratings (0)
  • Your Rating

Share on

Review by Perry Seibert

What would prompt you to go on an adventure? If you saw a flyer taped to a lamppost that urged you to visit a business office in a safe and wealthy part of town, would you investigate? For a few thousand people in San Francisco, that public leaflet was all they needed to begin participating in an elaborate game -- kind of like a scavenger hunt with an emotional arc -- designed by artist Jeff Hull. Spencer McCall's ambitious documentary The Institute gives those who weren't a part of that three-year production a chance to appreciate what they missed.

The movie has two very different yet complementary points of view. Some of the time, McCall focuses on interviews with people who played the game, and their stories become the backbone for his film. As they share their tales of examining hints left in odd e-mails and receiving calls at pay phones, McCall shows us what appears to be secretly recorded footage of the players following instructions.

The story they found themselves dropped into involved a possibly nefarious organization called the Jejune Institute, as well as the Elsewhere Public Works Agency -- a group convinced that Jejune's mastermind, Octavio Coleman, was a force for evil who may have had something to do with the disappearance of a young woman named Eva.

In contrast to the players describing their emotional involvement in these adventures, the director also interviews a number of people who set up the entire endeavor. These include Hull himself, who speaks candidly about his trouble coming up with a final act for his elaborate creation. This juxtaposition is one of the film's major selling points -- it's uncommon, and rather intriguing, for an artist to explain his intentions for a creative work just as we're seeing people's genuine reactions to it. All the while, the story plays out in such a way that the audience can easily imagine being caught up in the three-year process of experiencing this elaborate game.

There is, however, a cloud that hangs over the whole movie: You can't shake the feeling that Hull has masterminded what you're seeing here as brilliantly as he orchestrated what the players went through. Late in the film, we get stories about how Eva is in fact a real person -- even after we've met the actor who played the fictional Octavio Coleman -- and while that might deepen our understanding of what motivated Hull to pull off this ambitious and original experience, it doesn't quite ring true. Obvious follow-up questions go unasked and BS alarms begin to sound.

As mild-mannered as Hull comes across onscreen, there's something glaringly manipulative about what he wants to accomplish with his art. This is not to suggest in any way that Hull's intentions are malicious, but it's hard to ignore the nagging feeling that The Institute isn't an examination of the nature of his work so much as it is another example of it. You leave the film not knowing what to believe, and while that can be frustrating, you're also left with an undeniable urge -- even if it's a tiny one -- to find out more.

The slogan of the Jejune Institute was, "To those dark horses with the spirit to look up and see…a recondite family awaits," a phrase that encourages you to try to take in the world differently than you normally would, and that promises a rewarding experience if you follow through. The best thing about The Institute is that it offers a persuasive example of how true that statement may be.