Jack (Peter Vack) is a 30-something New Yorker maintaining a tenuous hold on a dumpy downtown apartment with his skill at internet blackjack. Internet sex is his real game, though. He's a regular at a cam-girl site, where he feverishly works out his sex-slave fantasies with a knockout dominatrix named Scarlet (Julia Fox). They're at a stage in their commercial relationship where, for a sizable "tip," she agrees to pretend they're both just ordinary human beings, and to tell him a little bit about herself. She used to like to paint, for example. "Wow!" says Jack, with overdone amazement. "You're an artist? That's the coolest thing I've heard all day." "Your life must be pretty boring," Scarlet says, "if that's the coolest thing you've heard all day." Score one for dom girl.
It's a bit of a surprise to find Julia Fox in another indie lower-depths movie at this point. She popped out of the Safdie brothers' "Uncut Gems" a little more than a year ago like a mermaid out of a mudhole, and a spangly Hollywood future seemed to be hers for the taking. Indeed, she has already shot an all-star HBO movie with Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon. But "PVT Chat" was already in the can, and now here it is.
Fox is a woman of several surprises. She's been a painter, a photographer (with two photo books to her credit), a filmmaker ("Fantasy Girls" is a movie about teen prostitution in Reno, Nevada), a clothing designer, a Playboy model and, during a brief period in her high school years, a role-playing dominatrix herself. Given her pillowy lips and plush body, she could easily coast along in the sort of movies that value such attributes highly. But Fox is unmistakably an actor, intuitive and emotionally precise, and — as we see in some of the sex scenes here — fearless.
Jack has crossed the line into obsession with Scarlet, and he's being driven a little nuts by the fact that their connection is strictly long-distance: She lives all the way out in San Francisco. Then, one night, wandering the streets, he sees a woman who looks a lot like Scarlet ducking into a corner deli. Later, while chatting with Scarlet online again, he asks if it was indeed her he saw. She tells him she's never been to New York.
The movie's dark scuzziness is a familiar cinematic atmosphere by now, but the picture is a little more than just secondhand Safdies. Some of the performances — Keith Poulson as Scarlet's unacknowledged boyfriend and Buddy Duress (another Safdie veteran) as a loosely wrapped head case — have an interesting energy. And the photography, by writer-director Ben Hozie, deals forthrightly with the unbridled sex scenes. (This isn't really a porn movie, but it's porn-adjacent — especially in a male-female masturbation episode at the end, for which both Fox and Vack should be given some sort of medal.)
Where the films of Benny and Josh Safdie keep surprising the viewer with fresh narrative filigree and one-of-a-kind characters, "PVT Chat" is sometimes muddy in its narrative (there's a pointless scuffle at an art exhibit) and in its characters (there's a subplot in which Jack is said to have no interest in the money he wins at blackjack and will be happy to turn it over to a needy acquaintance — when we've already seen that without that money, Jack would be homeless).
But whenever Fox is on screen in her black PVC bodysuit, with her collection of paddles and lashes and dog collars and dildos, and the grainy purr of her voice, the movie acquires a purpose: to propel her on toward better things.
("PVT Chat" is in theaters now and will begin streaming on Feb. 9.)
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.