★★ / ★★★★
Despite the melodrama that unfolds for the majority of the picture, “Acrimony,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, is almost effective because it is tethered so tightly around Taraji P. Henson’s performance. Henson plays a woman so filled with unconsolable rage that those closest to her are afraid she will hurt those who she feels did her wrong. Told in flashback, beginning when Melinda (Henson) meets Robert (Lyriq Bent) in college (the younger couple played by Ajiona Alexus and Antonio Madison), the material is able to generate a slow but powerful forward momentum only to fall apart during the final thirty minutes.
Dramatic thrillers rest so much on the payoff, the catharsis the audience must feel in their bones or the reward for having the patience to try and understand the perspective of the key characters, even though some of them are not written as sharply as should be so that they come across as living, breathing people rather than mere pawns to be moved in and around the plot. Melinda’s madness is not as interesting as her suffering as a girlfriend and eventual wife who invests everything she has—money, time, energy, emotional and physical support—on her husband’s dream of inventing a battery capable of recharging itself. (Because many of Perry screenplays are notorious for being heavy-handed, this work not being an exception, yes, the battery is a metaphor for the state of the couple’s marriage.)
The first half is strong because we are made to understand why Melinda feels betrayed. I enjoyed that the screenplay shows she is capable of empathy, making huge sacrifices, and having the patience when it is extremely difficult to remain in control of a situation. At the same time, the material is willing to show us her flaws apart from her disturbing anger issues. For instance, she has a habit of taking certain actions or words so personally when there really is no malicious intent. Those who look beyond the anger will be able to recognize a person who feels so much that she ends up latching onto those who make her feel important or valued—even to the point when she is no longer treated as important or valued.
There are some fresh choices in photography. Although Perry employs a darker lighting in order to pummel viewers over the head that what they are seeing is, in fact, a thriller, particularly surprising are instances when the writer-director subjects Henson under particularly harsh lighting to the point where it is unflattering. And I admire Henson for being willing to look so unappealing because the material demands that her character be as ugly or as monstrous as possible at a given time. While some may consider this as a misstep, I applaud it because, unless a movie is supposed to be a contender for major awards toward the end of the year, directors usually do not wish to show their actors in unfavorable frames.
It does not dispel the fact that the last act requires major revisions, perhaps even reshoots. The violence is cartoonish, the slow motions command no effect, and the dialogue sounds as though it were written by a teenager who has seen one too many reality shows and not read enough books (or at least seen a good number of quality movies). During this time, I could not help but feel robbed because I know the filmmakers and actors involved are so much better than the cheesy and ridiculous confrontation on a boat—proven by the solid ninety minutes that just came before.
Breaking In (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
The problem with “Breaking In” is that it does not aspire to become more than a standard thriller. A scene involving our heroine having to scramble for the gun in order to save herself and her family can be anticipated not from a mile way but due to the inevitability of its premise involving an innocent family having to fight against lawless thieves. In this day and age, having ambition is required—a minimal element, really—in order to have the chance to tell a familiar story in an inspired way. Not one decision in this film surprised me. It is a tolerable but occasionally bland cable movie that was lucky enough to have received theatrical release.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the picture is Gabrielle Union getting a chance to play a rough, physical role. In her previous parts, specifically in romantic comedies, she oozes charisma in a seemingly effortless way. All she has to do is stand in one place, usually saying nothing, yet her presence demands that she be seen, that we be interested in the woman who appears to have strong opinions and sharp intellect.
Here, she has the opportunity to set aside the softness and go hard. It is most frustrating then that the screenplay by Ryan Engle fails to inject substance to the character. Shaun is a mother of two (Ajiona Alexus, Seth Carr) whose millionaire father had been brutally murdered. Like most parents, she is highly protective of her kids. What we learn about her stops here.
One gets the impression that the writer does not understand what makes movies like “Die Hard” work as a genre piece as well as a successful mainstream entertainment. Yes, elaborate set pieces are expected but the magic lies in the small moments of character discovery—through humor or insight or creativity—that the audience learns to invest in the protagonist’s plight. In this film, focus is almost always on the action rather than the person undergoing through a challenge—when the action isn’t that impressive in the first place.
Director James McTeigue uses the environment in a manner that is accessible. The majority of the story takes place inside a sizable house, littered with security cameras, motion-activated lights, and bulletproof glass, that sits on an estate. Unlike intolerably bad films that squander the potential of a stylish setting, we get a pretty solid idea of the house’s geography. It is necessary that we do because there are times when tension is directly tethered to the heroes and villains just missing each other as one enters a hallway while the other makes a well-timed turn. Although few and far between, there are moments of levity and amusement.
Films that fall under the home invasion sub-genre almost always require memorable villains. Here is where the material drops the ball completely. Not once do we come to learn why this particular group of robbers (Billy Burke, Richard Cabral, Levi Meaden, Mark Furze) are especially formidable. While they need not have an interesting backstory, it is critical that the threat be real and almost unsurmountable. The four, together or apart, do not hold a candle against Union’s presence. And so we are not completely convinced that Shaun might fail to protect her children.
“Breaking In” is the kind of work that one begins to forget the moment the credits start rolling. While the in-the-moment experience is not excruciatingly painful in any way, it is never impressive. In the middle of it, I caught my mind wandering and wondering how provocateur Michael Haneke might have reshaped this second-rate thriller in look, tone, and content.