Tag: thriller

The Silence of the Lambs


The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It seems everywhere she goes Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), one of the top students at the FBI training academy, feels the male gaze caressing her: the local cops who find a corpse that had been underwater for days; her fellow trainees and superiors; the director of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane (Anthony Health); even the serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), dubbed Hannibal the Cannibal by the media, the former psychiatrist Clarice has been assigned to interview in order to gather information about a recently infamous psychopath known as Buffalo Bill—whose M.O. involves removing women’s skin after murdering them. He intends to stitch the skins and wear them. “Are you about a size 14?”

“The Silence of the Lambs,” based on the screenplay by Ted Tally and directed by Jonathan Demme, is first-rate entertainment. It is filled to the brim with sharp, intelligent, and fluid dialogue; carefully calibrated performances that not only demand viewers not to blink but also invite us to lean in and listen more closely; and memorable images so graphic at times that when we close our eyes our brain traces the outlines of grotesque images in the back of our eyelids. It is a psychological thriller so potent, tension gathers every step of the way—and it doesn’t let go until Clarice’s gun is fired in the expertly paced final ten minutes.

The picture’s centerpiece is the interaction between earnest Clarice and cunning Dr. Lecter. The relationship is curious because it is strictly a business transaction, a bartering of crucial information: Clarice provides details—sometimes painful details—about her past, Lecter gives insight on how to detect and capture Buffalo Bill. There is no trace of romantic connection. Not even a twisted father-daughter connection. It is a thrilling chess match between two perceptive individuals must who must work together in order to achieve their goals.

I think deep down they like each other. Perhaps there is even respect there. This is a masterstroke in an already top notch material. It is a true horror film in that we are asked to identify with a serial killer who eats his victims and feels no remorse. There is no explanation offered regarding this compulsion. It just is. Hopkins appears on screen for less than fifteen minutes in total yet his presence can be felt throughout. The level of menace he injects in the Lecter character is so high that it is able to pierce through every scene with ease. He need not be mentioned because Foster carries Clarice’s exchanges with Dr. Lecter like a scar. She is challenged to think like him but at the same time overcome him in order to avoid being played.

Demme possesses an understanding of how to capture situational horror effectively. Forget corpses on a platter or blood spatters as security guards are beaten with a truncheon. Look at the way images are framed as Clarice walks down the hall seconds before she introduces herself to the notorious Dr. Lecter. Observe the manner in which Buffalo Bill interacts with his victims, particularly the scene where he tries to copy the way a woman screams. On the surface, it appears as though he’s simply mocking her misery. But no. Like Clarice and Dr. Lecter, Buffalo Bill is a person who studies, who yearns to be free through a kind of transformation.

Pay special attention to the finale when Clarice must make her way through the dark… while the killer, standing about five feet away from her, wears night vision goggles… gazing at her. All of these examples require patience to unfold so that they truly get under our skins. We remember them not necessarily for the images but how they make us feel, how anticipation grips us by the throat.

Bloodline


Bloodline (2018)
★ / ★★★★

First-time director Henry Jacobson wishes to tell a story about a monster hiding in plain sight in “Bloodline,” a psychological thriller so devoid of suspense, creativity, and drama that to say it is a Great Value version of the television series “Dexter” would be an insult to the brand—because the brand is meant to save us money while the film wastes our time. Nearly every second of its ninety-five minute running time feels like pulling teeth because no tension is accumulated; we are simply meant to sit through a series of would-be shocking events which almost always end up with a victim getting his or her throat sliced open. Cue the blood spatter on the killer’s face.

In the middle of it, I wondered if Seann William Scott actually read the screenplay before signing on for the project. He must have because it is obviously an independent film with limited budget—not at all a multimillion-dollar franchise in which an actor gets paid the big bucks. Did he owe someone a favor? Was he threatened to do the picture? Is this a two-part deal? In any case, his talent is wasted here. His character, a high school counselor who has a new baby at home, is not written with searing insight, great depth, and surprising details—strange because the intention of the work is for us to look at Mr. Cole and recognize eventually he is a portrait of evil. It is not enough to show him killing people that he thinks deserve to be punished; we must have an understanding of what makes a complex subject tick. What is/are his moral code(s)? Does he have any? Whatever the case, what makes this character worth looking into?

Mr. Cole’s penchant for killing stems from a traumatizing childhood event. (Aren’t they all?) These flashbacks lack control in terms of editing and how it is shot. They are presented to us randomly, perhaps when the subject becomes so stressed in his home life and/or while at work. The intention, I guess, is to show that he has such a flimsy grasp on reality that his mind must reach back into the past in order to cope. It is most unconvincing because the material also suggests that Mr. Cole is addicted to killing. It cannot be both because these are two different needs. There is a lack of both consistency and a basic understanding of abnormal psychology in Avra Fox-Lerne, Henry Jacobson, and Will Honley’s screenplay.

Strong debut pictures are usually propelled by great energy. At times first-time filmmakers wish to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their project—just in case they will not have another opportunity to make a second movie. In “Bloodline,” it is almost the exact opposite. There is no sense of desperation here channeled into something positive. It is lifeless, dour, and nearly every element feels constricted. Listen to the dialogue, for instance. It sounds like actors are reading from the script instead of simply being. Look at how scenes are shot indoors versus outdoors—there is little difference. It is no wonder the work is flat in look and feeling.

Even the relationship between husband and wife (Mariela Garriga) is most unconvincing. We are supposed to notice a difference in how their lifestyle changes as a couple once the adorable baby arrives—when it is not painfully apparent the performers are carrying or interacting with a doll—but there is nothing to sink our teeth into because minimal context is provided when it comes to how their lives are like before parenthood. It does not help that Scott and Garriga share no chemistry. When they are in bed together, it feels like a bad joke. We wait for the punchline.

Plagues of Breslau


Plagues of Breslau (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Patryk Vega’s “Plagues of Breslau” begins with a curious premise involving a cow hide being found in a market and inside it is a man who has died only two hours prior, but despite the handful of grim occurrences throughout, it is not a captivating thriller. It is as clear as day that the picture is highly influenced by Jonathan Demme’s modern classic “The Silence of the Lambs” and David Fincher’s savagely entertaining “Se7en.” However, it does not possess a screenplay that is character-driven nor one that is deeply interested in complex morality. What results is a parade of reveals surrounding fresh corpses with words seared on their bodies: “degenerate,” “corrupt,” “oppressor,” and the like. What should be gruesome grows stale.

Lead investigator of the serial killings in Wrocław is Helena whom we meet in her car, crying and holding a pistol in her hand. She is played by Malgorzata Kozuchowska with silent intensity and with a voice so calm, even soft at times, we wonder if she is moved at all by the murders. Or perhaps she is numbed by the fact that although her fiancé had been killed by a drunk driver, the driver went unpunished. Does she harbor anger for the system she works for? Clearly, she remains in mourning. Is she fit to be on the job at this time, especially when facing a very clever unsub?

Kozuchowska makes some fresh choices on how to portray Helena despite the screenplay’s lack of willingness to engage with the character in such a way that by the end we see a whole person rather than a tough persona of a woman who has been in the police force for years. The work does not answer the question of why this particular heroine is worth following other than she is simply on screen sporting a quirky haircut (a third of her head is shaved). The shallow characterization makes, for example, flashbacks toward the end feel rather cheap, tacked on. Although they fill in certain pieces of the puzzle, these revelations come across forced.

It is a shame because the picture offers a few attention-grabbing set pieces. A great example involves a racehorse galloping down the street as terrorized pedestrians jump out of its way. Because the action functions on such a level, matched by skilled editing and energetic framing, we miss so much information at a given time that when a twist occurs, we feel it is deserved because all the answers have been presented to us. It plays fair. If only the rest of the movie functioned on a consistently breathless but detailed level.

Notice when the action dies down, there is minimal detective work. Helena and Iwona (Daria Widawska), a specialist profiler from Warsaw, visit places and interrogate citizens, but there is a dearth of hands-on, dirty police work; it feels sanitized, a fantasy version of what actual police work is like. We merely anticipate what the killer will do before 6PM strikes. Because it is revealed early on that the unsub appears to be inspired by an 18th century figure who felt he needed to purge human fallacies (degeneracy, pillaging, corruption, slandering, oppression, treachery) in order to bring justice and peace to his city. And so for one week, beginning on Monday, one person who is guilty of one of the fallacies will be publicly executed. (Sunday is considered to be a holiday so a total of 6 people are expected to die.)

“Plagues of Breslau” plays a hand so conventional, I thought about similar television shows that work on a much higher level about half a dozen times. While it can be entertaining on the surface level, there is nothing but air once you bite into it. Certain elements—like women being disrespected in a traditionally masculine work force or what is expected from the female gender despite so-called progressivism in our modern times—are there to make a really angry film with something of value to say. But for some reason, the writer-director fails to focus on what it is he wishes to communicate by using serial killings as a template.

Calibre


Calibre (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

The British suspense-thriller “Calibre” is the kind of picture that glues viewers onto their seats. The premise involving a hunting gone wrong is quite standard, but it is elevated by writer-director Matt Palmer’s efficient screenplay. Notice that once living bodies hit the ground, every scene inspires the audience to ask, “Then what happens?” Will the two friends and eventual murderers, Marcus (Martin McCann) and Vaughn (Jack Lowden), make it out of the Scottish village or will they die in the hands of a close-knit community who believes that a debt must be paid in full?

We are provided information about how the friendship works. Vaughn, a father-to-be, is the more soft-spoken of the two former boarding schoolmates. We have a clear picture of his morality. He is supposed to be the “good” half of the duo. Marcus the businessman is single, confident, and enjoys having fun with a line of cocaine or three. He takes risks and draws attention to himself—inadvertently or otherwise. Palmer ensures to keep the camera on Marcus as rural folks measure him up. Marcus enjoys attention and admiration. It is critical that we have an appreciation of how the two men are like together and apart. We are meant to observe how they react the moment they shoot a person dead. We measure how their morals are similar or different to our own.

Surely the dead deserves justice, but it is curious that we find ourselves rooting for Marcus and Vaughn to make it out of the village alive anyway. It is not that we wish for them to get away with murder. But if they did not, then there would be more corpses by the time the weekend rolls around. Yes, it is a survival thriller. However, the writer-director underlines the fact that the duo must survive first in order for the situation to have a possibility of being corrected—at least when it comes to the standard rule of law. At the same time, the writing makes a point that because the community lives way up in the mountains, they have their own laws, rules, and morality.

The picture is shot in a matter-of-fact way. I appreciated its simplicity. The ground is always wet and muddy—the filmmakers do not go out of their way to make the woods, the various business establishments, and the people look beautiful or appealing. They just are so it is easy to believe that this particular isolated village exists out there somewhere.

Foot chases possess a savageness to them. Nervous and guilty people on the run get tired easily. There is minimal score. It is so quiet at times that we can almost hear the characters think. When they stare off into space, it is a statement. As they evaluate situations, notice the fond use of close-ups. Clearly, Lowden and McCann are expressive performers. It is not a surprise that the villages eventually begin to suspect their characters. Yes, they are outsiders. And, yes, they are the only ones hunting that day. But they also tend to wear guilty looks on their faces. They are worthy of suspicion. It is darkly comic how something always comes up which prevents the two from leaving the village. Maybe they are already sentenced to hell.

“Calibre” strums the nerves as if they were guitar strings. It is entertaining because the writer-director appears to have an understanding of the push-and-pull among suspense, action, and thrill. At its best, the material even goes out of its way to touch upon the economic hardships of rural communities, how desperate people are unable to find work so they can put food on the table. I wish this aspect were explored more thoroughly, not only a passing glance. It is no accident that our protagonists come from the city.

Dragged Across Concrete


Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Two detectives, Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), are caught via phone camera for being too rough on a suspect. Six-week suspension, no pay. The former has an idea: To rob criminals planning to execute a bank heist. The latter is given a choice on whether to join his partner. He accepts, albeit reluctantly; money is needed in the likely event his girlfriend accepts his wedding proposal. Like strong thrillers told with clear vision and precision, “Dragged Across Concrete” offers a straightforward plot—and yet many may find it to be a challenge to sit through because of its formidable patience. Without the fat, it is barely a ninety-minute feature. And yet it has a total running time of two hours and forty minutes. In this rare case, fat provides flavor.

This is a story of people who are required to sacrifice something important in order to achieve what they want. Most of them will pay with their lives. It is quite grim in its vision of reality, but I found it to be honest, too. Our detectives are not pleasant people to be around. For instance, one of them is a proud racist. The other tolerates his partner’s… eccentricity. One feels he is owed by the city he has protected for doing “good and honest work” which supposedly justifies the corruption he is about to step into. The other knows he is smart and can do much better than to sit next to an increasingly bitter man who is twenty years his senior. Yet this man chooses to remain stagnant, coming up with one justification after another in order to delay what is right for his career.

These are interesting characters precisely because of their flaws. Exchanges between Gibson and Vaughn command electricity; they adapt a rhythm that feels cinematic without losing that roughness or jaggedness innate to independent films. Ridgeman and Lurasetti enable one another yet challenge each other in small ways, even in petty ways. Attempts at humor are present when it comes to their behavior, especially when both are confined in a small space—like how a sandwich is eaten. We spent ample time in their car, just waiting for something to happen. Those thirsty for action will likely get bored, but those who wish to understand these men will be curious of what they have to say or do next. I fall in the latter category.

Zahler’s daring screenplay shines not just during shockingly violent in-your-face moments. Although I must say there is a murder that occurs about halfway through that haunted me until well after the end credits. Notice the material is not afraid to put the rising action into a screeching halt in order to provide exposition regarding new characters, who may or may not be critically important during the final act, and reveal their motivations. Instead of giving us repetitive car chases and shootouts, we take a quick peek at their home lives: the state of their living space, who is important to them, and why they come to the conclusion that money will solve their current woes. But what good is money when you’re dead and you’re not there to share joy and laughter with loved ones? To these people, it is worth the risk.

Looking at the work as a whole, I think its goal is to censure systemic problems in our current society: racism, corruption, and the constant failure to hold cops responsible for their actions in a way that is healthy and therefore have positive effects long-term. The movie is a look at how punishment-driven we are: imprison criminals when they need rehabilitation, suspend cops without pay when what most of them really need is proper training not only as cops but also as enforcers of law who must learn to relate better with the diverse communities they serve. Finally, it condemns how we as a society have allowed those in power to put money on such a high pedestal that we are willing to die to attain it. That is why the violence must be framed in an extreme fashion. The film is angry and we should be, too. Yes, the movie entertains, but it also works as social commentary should viewers bother to look underneath the sclera.

The Survivalist


The Survivalist (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is about twenty minutes into the film until the first word is uttered in “The Survivalist,” intelligently written and directed by Stephen Fingleton, a thoroughly engaging and unsentimental look into a future after a steep decline in human population. The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed man (Martin McCann) who lives deep in the forest. We meet him while dragging a naked male body across the forest floor, seconds before pushing the corpse into a shallow grave. Based on the survivalist’s body language and his clockwork efficiency, this is not his first time throwing out the trash.

Fingleton dunks our heads into the main character’s daily routine. He wakes up, washes up, tends to the small farm situated right outside the front door, checks bear traps for intruders, forages berries, washes clothes in a neighboring stream, and checks on the crops some more. Although we hear not one word word from or about the man, we learn so much about him in how the camera fixates on his movements, his eyes when he attempts to solve a problem, his posture when he longs for human interaction. An intoxicating rhythm is established and we come to have an appreciation of a specific person’s lifestyle. It gets details exactly right. For instance, it is appropriate that our protagonist have dirty fingernails because he massages dirt every day; that his body leans toward the scraggy side since there are bouts of food shortages.

We also get a feel for the survivalist’s mental state. There is a suggestion early on that perhaps he is on the brink of losing his sanity. He feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns around, in horror, and yet there is no one there. The writer-director makes the astute decision to linger on the face of our protagonist. He, too, wonders whether he is losing his mind. Again, we get an impression that this is not the first time it has happened. Keep in mind that up until this point not a single line of dialogue is provided yet. Despite this, however, we are able to extract a wealth of information because the screenplay, direction, and performance are so alive.

The plot does not take off until two women—mother and daughter—arrive at the small farm. The mother, Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré), asks the man if she and her daughter, Milja (Mia Goth), could take some of the crops. The man is unmoved. Jewelry is offered. Some seeds, too. He holds his position, shotgun pointing at the intruders, waiting for them to slip. An arrangement is made eventually. We know precisely what it is our protagonist desires based on earlier observations. The well-written screenplay has provided exactly what it is we need to know about the survivalist for the entire film’s duration. But this is not to suggest he no longer has the ability to surprise.

“The Survivalist” is not for everyone. Although it adopts a dour tone similar to numerous post-apocalyptic films, the pacing moves at a snail’s pace—without compromise. It keeps plenty of valuable information from unobservant viewers. I admired this decision; by focusing on the humanity of the characters instead of the action, every decision comes across calculated and important. We are challenged to wonder and predict which choices would prove fruitful later on or haunt the characters ten-fold. While most post-apocalyptic stories tend to be glamorized, this particular story goes the opposite direction. Its world is so unforgiving, there is no place for the weak.

Body at Brighton Rock


Body at Brighton Rock (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Situational horror picture “Body at Brighton Rock” inspires the viewer to look up the qualifications for becoming a part-time summer park ranger because the protagonist (Karina Fontes) has a tendency to make one mistake right after another, most often due to a lack of common sense and consistent failure to follow simple directions, that we question whether she is worth following all the way through the story. And so despite the film just clocking in under ninety minutes, it feels significantly longer. It is highly frustrating to watch a main character—one hired to be out in the wilderness and promote safety—who has minimal knowledge of survival skills. Imagine this: Wendy comes across a lighter and she still has trouble starting a fire. The screenplay by writer-director Roxanne Benjamin is the issue here; it lacks pragmatism, creativity, and imagination. It does not know where to go once Wendy comes across a corpse. There is talk among friends that the woods may be haunted. It is acknowledged that Wendy might be sitting in the middle of a crime scene. Cue shots of creepy-looking branches which suggest the woods may be alive. Is a hungry predator within the vicinity? Leaves make crunching noises but there is no one there. Likewise, ideas are introduced but never explored in meaningful ways. There is no suspense, thrill, or horror. Just a whole lot of waiting for nothing to happen.

Burn


Burn (2019)
★ / ★★★★

The near-lifeless suspense-thriller “Burn” takes a look at a gas station attendant named Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) who is so lonely and so tired of being treated like she’s invisible that during a seemingly ordinary graveyard shift, instead of finding ways to alert the police, she decides to help a desperate robber (Josh Hutcherson), hoping that, after proving her loyalty, he would take her along for the ride. Although the picture takes risks and offers a number surprises, particularly in how it portrays its protagonist as sympathetic but at the same time struggling with serious mental health issues, nearly every single one comes across unconvincing, fake, a performance. Events occur simply because the plot must move forward. Its attempts at dark humor—a rape scene, for instance—do not land exactly on target and so viewers are left feeling dirty, awkward, cheated. It proves to possess a minimal understanding—if that—of thrillers that unfold in and around one location in real time. Thus, by the time its eighty minutes are up, the movie provides no catharsis. By first-time writer-director Mike Gan.

Welcome Home


Welcome Home (2018)
★ / ★★★★

About fifteen minutes into George Ratliff’s wan suspense-thriller “Welcome Home,” one cannot help but wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to tell this particular story. With its familiar plot involving an American couple vacationing in a foreign countryside and coming across a creepy neighbor coupled with an execution so lacking in energy and urgency that by the time we hit the hour mark it is still laying out exposition, the entire work is an exercise in pointlessness. There are images paraded on screen, but the work fails to go anywhere genuinely interesting.

The couple is played by Aaron Paul and Emily Ratajkowski; although they are attractive together and apart, there is a desperate lack of chemistry between them. This is problematic because Bryan and Cassie are shown in various states of undress and having sex from what it feels like every other scene—as if the material were a cheap erotic thriller—we remain unconvinced of their hunger for one another’s flesh. It isn’t the least bit titillating. And when the central drama between the characters is introduced, the reason why Cassie and Bryan decide to rent a vacation home in the country of romance, it comes across so bland, superficial, and recycled one grows curious of writer David Levinson’s inspirations. Did he have any?

The strange neighbor is not written to have enough cunningness to him. He lacks flavor and danger. Riccardo Scamarcio possesses the ability to balance charm and mischief, but his Federico is reduced to behavior: he finds sexual gratification in spying on the couple, establishing a rapport with them—especially with guilt-ridden and vulnerable Cassie—by being of use like cooking meals, and stalking them around the village. But we never discover what makes him the perfect antagonist against those he terrorizes. And because he is not particularly strong, or smart, or unhinged, he does not feel at all formidable. He is simply there to cause tension because no other character can be pit against Bryan, Cassie, or both. It feels forced.

There are beautiful shots of country home’s exteriors: verdant grass swaying with the wind, the sunset’s ability to underscore the geometry of cobblestone paths, the white wine-colored open sky that promises endless summer. These are worthy of being posted on Instragram. But inside the home there is conflict, distrust, anger, regret.

Bryan and Cassie are unsure whether they have a future together; their bodies are as close as can be but their spirits are miles apart. Is the relationship even worth salvaging? Had the writer focused on our obsession to create a picture of perfection for the world to see, the standard story might have had a chance to stand out and feel relevant today.

Instead, “Welcome Home” feels like a sham—a movie so uninspired that instead of taking risks, like striving to make a compelling or haunting statement about broken relationships, it would rather pile on clichés on top of an already bland premise. By the end of the story, we have two dead bodies and yet we are not moved or surprised by the plot developments. Even its major twist lacks special punch.

Fractured


Fractured (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Is there something deeply sinister going on in the country hospital or is the man who claims that his wife and daughter had been kidnapped by the hospital staff simply exhibiting psychosis? Brad Anderson’s “Fractured” offers a familiar premise and is almost immediately elevated by a sympathetic lead performance. But with an ending so uninspired, maddening, and predictable, one is left to wonder whether the journey is worth it by the time end credits appear.

The picture’s strongest quality is its patient build-up. As it lays down the foundation of Ray’s relationship with his wife and young daughter, we empathize with the man who feels that his family is slipping away. He is desperate to keep things together since a prior loss of a loved one continues to haunt him. Ray, played with convincing vulnerability and desperation by Sam Worthington, is a former alcoholic. We meet him having an argument with Joanne (Lily Rabe) in the car while on their way back home from Thanksgiving celebration. Worthington and Rabe share solid chemistry as a married couple on the verge of divorce. Words are used like daggers but the moments of silence, too, are just as sharp. The opening scene, rooted in drama, hints at a better than average thriller.

From the way scenes are shot, especially once the family of three set foot at the questionable hospital, viewers are jolted into paying attention. Notice the fond use of close-ups. Nearly every hospital staff encountered is a source of suspicion, from clerks at the front desk who must deal with patients who are tired of waiting, security personnel who walk down the halls with pride, to doctors who come across little too friendly. The camera is used as a magnifying glass to reveal possible secrets. Are they all in on it? Only a few of them? Is there something going on in the first place? Nearly each face is memorable and so there is a good possibility we will meet them again under a more confrontational context. No one enjoys being accused as a liar.

The work introduces the possibility that Ray might be an unreliable protagonist. This is when the film falters because it falls into the usual trappings of fast cuts, hallucinatory and discombobulated imagery, and irksome sound effects. There is an elegant way to create a character we are supposed to distrust without using cheap and tired tricks from terrible movies.

It requires, for instance, an astute screenplay so in love with dialogue and of the human condition that it becomes a challenge to discern among truth, lies, and half-truths. For a movie in which the lead character is deathly afraid to lose his family, reductive dialogue becomes more prevalent the deeper we get into the story. More interested in delivering immediate sensations, it might have elevated the work had a more cerebral approach been chosen from time to time. In thrillers, tricks must be changed once in a while or else their effects may likely suffer from diminishing returns—as they do here.

The ending did not work for me at all—nor so I think would it work for anybody who possesses more than three brain cells. I got the impression that screenwriter Alan B. McElroy wishes so badly to deliver a twist or haunting ending that it does not matter whether it actually fits the story being told. Due to the nature of the denouement, no catharsis that feels exactly right is provided. The payoff is unsatisfying. We feel cheated of our time.

First Kill


First Kill (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

A father’s (Hayden Christensen) solution to his son (Ty Shelton) getting bullied is to take him hunting, but when the two witness a corrupt cop shooting a bank robber (Gethin Anthony) because the latter refuses to simply hand over the money, Will and Danny find themselves targets of deceitful law enforcements. The occasionally engaging action-thriller “First Kill” offers one prolonged but entertaining chase scene in the woods and one shootout sequence in which those involved never seem to run out of bullets. Everything else around it is busy work that leads up to an expected conclusion. However, there are bits of humor sprinkled about that hint at an edgier screenplay, one longing to be more self-aware of conventions—had screenwriter Nick Gordon been more ambitious—regarding cops, robbers, and the unlucky regular folks who happen to get caught in the middle of the crossfire. It has the potential to turn into a more potent action film with a heart. It proves capable when a boy and a thief make a genuine connection concerning what it takes to stand up against bullies. Directed by Steven C. Miller.

The Domestics


The Domestics (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

There are far too many suspense-thrillers with rather neat premises but ending up sputtering about halfway through. I think it is because screenwriters get so distracted by the shiny new ideas that they end up neglecting to explore them in meaningful ways. And so when the novelty wears off, the work lacks a reason to exist. A twisted road trip picture, for instance, is reduced to yet another shoot ‘em up. “The Domestics,” written and directed by Mike P. Nelson, is guilty of this significant shortcoming.

The U.S. government’s black poison has killed most of the American population. No reason is provided why this was sanctioned, nor is the material required to do so. The survivors, those resistant to the toxic substance, have been divided into two major factions: those who joined a gang—which is divided further based on their moral codes (or lack thereof)—and the so-called Domestics—people who scrape by every day without group affiliation. Married couple Mark (Tyler Hoechlin) and Nina (Kate Bosworth) belong in the latter category who decide to make their way to Milwaukee after Nina’s parents cease to communicate via radio. As expected, the spouses encounter various gangs who wish to imprison, torture, or… play with them.

The co-leads do a serviceable job in their respective roles, but the screenplay fails to make them equally interesting. Mark is strong, creative, and vigilant—clearly equipped with survival instinct. On the other hand, Nina is in this constant state of sadness. During the majority of the picture, she is nearly useless, a major liability. I found it to be painfully cliché when the character so suddenly becomes a warrior during the final twenty minutes. The pivot is ineffective because neither character is given enough specific details so that any change that may occur later is thoroughly convincing.

Instead, more effort is put into the action sequences—where the gun is pointed, whose brains are being blown out, blood spatters on walls, sharp objects going though flesh. Notice the manic nature of the editing during these scenes. The violence, while cringe-inducing in a good way, is consistently at the forefront yet there is minimal social commentary in whatever is going on. After all, strong post-apocalyptic films tend to be about something else entirely, from the rousing “Mad Max” films, darkly comic “Delicatesen,” insightful “Children of Men,” down to poetic dirges like “The Road.”

There is a hint, I suppose, of friction between the protagonists. Before the toxins were released, Nina and Mark were on the process of getting a divorce. But the details are both superficial and laughable. Listen to this: Nina confesses to a fellow survivor (Jacinte Blankenship) that they used to be so crazy for each other. She especially swooned at the fact that Mark would leave her cute and romantic notes at home or at work. Eventually, however, the gesture stopped. I couldn’t help roll my eyes and stifle a laugh during this would-be vulnerable moment. Did she really expect such flirtation and playfulness to last for the rest of their marriage? Is she really this short-sighted and shallow? Of course passion wanes. What matters is what you do about it as a couple when it does.

“The Domestics” is not without potential to become a solid thriller. I enjoyed that each gang has a specific personality. The leaders may not have memorable faces, but their monstrous behaviors linger in the mind. Had the screenplay undergone further editing by focusing on the overall message they wish to portray, followed by strong, detailed, and surprising characterizations, it would have felt refresher, more urgent, more relevant in our modern times of politically divided America.

Blood Money


Blood Money (2017)
★ / ★★★★

There are not enough plot twists in Lucky McKee’s “Blood Money” to justify having to endure extremely irritating characters who come across four bags full of money, each containing two million dollars, while hiking in the wilderness. In the middle of it, I found myself rooting for the white collar villain, an embezzler, a man named Miller played with cool by John Cusack, because then the movie would have been over. Despite a running time of less than ninety minutes, the material is so generic, it feels closer to two hours.

Attempts at character development inspire epic eye rolls. Notice how it tells rather than shows. Three college friends—Victor (Ellar Coltrane), Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald), and Jeff (Jacob Artist)—sit around a campfire spewing expository dialogue that details their histories, current thoughts, and hopes for the future. None of the dialogue rings true; it is so superficial—like one feeling jealous that his former girlfriend is now with the other guy—that the whole charade feels like a teen soap opera. It does not help that not one of the performers is particularly compelling to watch or listen to. The awful dialogue is worsened by the constant, interminable whining. If I were around that campfire, I would have called it an early night by pretending to be unwell because staying would actually make me feel unwell. It is unbelievable that the trio have convinced themselves to remain friends with one another. Every one of them is vile. Maybe that is their commonality, their sick bond.

The manner in which the sound is put together is most irritating. Of particular struggle is when actors speak their lines while standing next to a river. Dialogue is barely audible. It is worsened by the fact that the score is almost always present during these exchanges. So no matter how passionate or angry a person becomes during an increasingly complex task of towing four heavy bags full of cash across a forest, the experience—their suffering, our catharsis—is muffled. At one point I wondered if it was the director’s intention to make a bad movie because some mistakes are so elementary. It is like reading an essay plagued with spelling errors.

Chase scenes are standard and edited haphazardly. It does not even bother to stop once in a while to show us the beauty or danger of the setting. It feels like amateur hour when at times you feel as though could take any old camera and capture more effective shots of predator attempting to catch its prey. Cue close-ups of performers not looking remotely tired, let alone breaking a sweat, for supposedly sprinting about half a mile. Time and again the picture fails to establish elements that make up a convincing survival thriller.

“Blood Money” is a near complete waste of time, but there is one fresh quirk about it. Miller does not wish to kill those who stumbled upon his money. He asks for them to simply hand the bags over. It is the students’ greed, one of them in particular, that allows an awkward situation to snowball. There is minimal entertainment to be had here despite the numerous unintentional humor. We should be laughing at their stupidity, but we are reminded time and again that the filmmakers do not even bother to make a passable movie.

Rust Creek


Rust Creek (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The backwoods suspense-thriller “Rust Creek,” written by Julie Lipson and directed by Jen McGowan, is clearly inspired by noir pictures of early Coen Brothers, but the overall experience is less than satisfying due to its tonal shifts, particularly in the middle of the picture when our heroine, Sawyer (Hermione Corfield), is rescued by a man named Lowell (Jay Paulson) whose job is to cook meth for the very same people that Sawyer is running away from. While the relationship between Sawyer and Lowell is intriguing and the actors manage to sell how their characters regard one another over time, there is not enough excitement in the main narrative surrounding two rednecks (Micah Hauptman, Daniel R. Hill) whose goal is to kill the college girl who escaped from their initial assault.

Sawyer is a believable character who is strong and tough without the material constantly dangling these elements in front of the audience. I think it helps that Corfield chooses to internalize nearly everything that happens to Sawyer instead of going for the more overt emotions—like screaming, shouting, and crying—in order to earn our sympathy. I felt as though she trusts the writing and direction to punch through the expected chases and left turns that come with the genre. And yet, when necessary, there is a softness to Sawyer. Her surprising connection to an unexpected ally, Lowell, is fresh: I cannot remember a hillbilly in another thriller who is actually smart and shown to have deep thoughts.

Less interesting are the cops in charge of investigating the missing woman. Sheriff O’Doyle (Sean O’Bryan) appears to be extremely sharp when introduced but progressively gets dumber as the film goes on. Deputy Katz (Jeremy Glazer), a wide-eyed rookie with enthusiasm to spare, too, is promising initially. I believe the reason why they get less interesting over time is the plot requires them to not know as much as the audience in order to delay the action. Because if they were as knowledgeable as us, the movie would have been over thirty minutes earlier. I wished the no-nonsense Commander Slattery (John Marshall Jones) took over the case completely because his presence is so strong, he is not required to say a word to command the room.

The extended chase scenes are realistic, horrific, and beautiful. Overhead shots of injured Sawyer really capture the fact that our protagonist does not have a chance in those woods. By showing the massiveness of what’s around her, she looks so small and insignificant. She may scream and cry out for help but there is no one there to listen except the birds. Time is also against her since she is bleeding out. And because she is disabled, even climbing a small hill, for instance, becomes a challenge. Notice McGowan’s control of the camera as she forces us to view the action through Sawyer’s perspective. When she is down on the ground, the camera is limited to a certain height or angle, especially if there is no hope of achieving a certain goal.

Clearly, thought and effort are present in “Rust Creek” and that is why I am giving the film a marginal recommendation. However, it would have been a far more potent survival thriller had the noir elements been sharpened. When tension cuts like a scalpel, you know you are sitting through a first-rate thriller.