Escape Room (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
The problem with “Escape Room,” written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, is that its core premise—ordinary people being stuck in a place and are tasked to extricate themselves out of life-or-death situations—has been executed in better, more potent horror-mystery-thrillers (“Cube,” “Saw” series). In the middle of it, one is forced to wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to deliver a more dilute product, one that is clearly made for viewers whose brains have been groomed to go on autopilot right from the opening sequence. For the most part, I found it as dull as tap water with occasional glimmers of curious ideas never expounded upon.
Its idea of entertainment is capturing its characters in panic mode as they attempt to gather clues so they could open a door that leads to the next room. Naturally, more cryptic riddles await. Challenges range from performing under extreme temperatures (would you rather die from heatstroke or hypothermia?) to maintaining focus as perceptions are altered, but it is strange that, from the moviegoing point of view, it never feels like a psychological thriller.
A superficial entertainment is created because not once are we made to understand each character, whether it be how they think, what makes them special subjects, the ways in which they are able to provide results that the Game Masters do not expect. We are given flashbacks designed to underline the connection of the players but these come across as an easy way out, if you will, because the final fifteen minutes is so rushed, interesting ideas are not given a chance to grow and flourish. Sharper writers would have recognized that is correct to end the game about halfway through the material and the other half dedicated to exploring why the so-called game is occurring and who is, or are, in control of it—a standard premise followed by ideas unique to the picture. You see, originality doesn’t always mean having to be distinctive from start to finish.
The actors do a capable job in embodying archetypes, from Jay Ellis who plays a highly confident day trader to Taylor Russell as a timid physics student (Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, and Nik Dodani round up the main cast). However, because most of us have an idea of such archetypes and so, from the way the script is written, we know precisely who will make it to the very end. On this level, it is less exciting; as characters begin to drop like flies, only a minimal tension is delivered because we already have an idea that our suspected central protagonist will be safe. The only question is whether the final ten seconds of the picture would kill off the main character. You know how many of these generic horror-thrillers go; for a material that demands imagination, it is astounding how it lacks this very thing.
I enjoyed each room from the perspective of design (the “upside down” room stands out). Each one is distinct from the other and requires a different way of thinking. Had the writing been wiser, it would have allowed for the characters to grow with each challenge. Instead, they almost always end up in a state of panic—cue yelling and screaming—and so each room is a case of déjà vu. The formula is so crippling, tedious at times, that I imagined the ways I could escape from a room where this particular movie was playing.
Amant double, L’ (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Although its resolution is somewhat pedestrian for my taste, especially considering that it is directed by François Ozon, a filmmaker who makes intelligent and daring choices, “Double Lover,” adapted from the novel “Lives of the Twins” by Joyce Carol Oates, grips the viewer by the throat with a mystery so potent, it is required that we feel that every scene is tantamount to taking one step closer toward an answer we may or may not be ready for. I watched the picture with great interest and was impressed that even though it is a dramatic work first and foremost, it commands strong tension commonly found in memorable thrillers.
The plot is as ordinary as it is sinister: a client falls in love with her psychoanalyst. Most of us have come across this template before. It is curious, sort of taboo, and a solid stepping stone toward a more interesting avenue. After Chloé (Marine Vacth) and Paul (Jérémie Renier) move in together, the former, who has a history of crippling stomach pains especially when her life gets stressful, comes across her beau’s look-alike (also played by Renier). The men look so similar that she becomes convinced that they must be twins. However, Paul insists he does not have a brother, let alone a twin. Chloé, following her nagging intuition, decides to investigate by contacting the double.
Here is a film that requires carefully calibrated performances. Vacth and Renier—each—must deliver at least two convincing performances—but in different ways. Renier’s is the more obvious task because he plays two characters who look the same but everything else about them are different—almost polar opposites. Vacth, arguably, has the more difficult role depending on which man she is facing. In addition, we follow how she is when she is with strangers and when alone in a room where she must confront her thoughts and longings.
Despite the plot machinations and acrobatics, I believe this is a story of a woman whose deepest desire is to be seen. Pay close attention to the incredibly intimate opening scenes—the first taking place in a clinic where one’s body is completely exposed and the second in an office in which deeply personal information must be divulged to a complete stranger. We learn of the protagonist’s body, mind, and soul through the scope of a standard dramatic parabola. And yet—except for the ending—there is nearly nothing standard about its approach to telling its story.
I admire Ozon’s work, including this one, because he is not afraid to use the camera as more than a camera. Take the opening shot, for instance, as he employs the camera like a microscope. He is not ashamed to show a woman’s sex because the intention is not to provide sleazy titillation or to shock the viewer. Instead, the matter-of-fact manner of showing a body part, which just so happens to be a sexual organ, ties into the bigger, more elegant themes of the material. Here is a film for the most mature audiences, those who enjoy digging throughly into novels and studying every connection and symbolism. (Pay attention on how the film shows and uses glass and mirrors.)
This is not to suggest that “L’amant double” is inaccessible or opaque. It simply requires an open mind in order to become hypnotized by its wonderful control of tone, foreboding atmosphere, and pacing so assured—at times melodramatic—that clocking in at less than two hours is almost miraculous considering the thicker details of its central mystery.
Berlin Syndrome (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Cate Shortland’s “Berlin Syndrome” is an intriguing portrait of a man and a woman in a rather… complicated relationship, the former being a psychopath (Max Riemelt) and the latter a tourist being held captive in an isolated apartment (Teresa Palmer). Although the picture is deliberately paced with something curious happening just about every other scene, it suffers from a lack of catharsis which is particularly difficult to pull off in a thriller. At times it is particularly trying to sit through because we wonder if or when Clare will finally decide to fight back against her delusional captor.
Palmer and Riemelt deliver highly watchable performances. Palmer has a knack for playing a character whose wings had been clipped. The picture’s early scenes showcasing Clare’s freedom in a foreign country in contrast against having to survive in a limited space where not even windows are capable of being opened, Palmer touches upon the loneliness and desperation of the character. The performer is at her best when emoting in a scene by herself. She reminds me of lite-Kirsten Stewart, a bit more versatile in her body language and not relying on facial contortions too much.
Meanwhile, Riemelt expertly balances being charming and sinister. It is eerie how Andi is shown as a teacher by day and a creep, to say the least, during his free time. Sometimes we can read every expression on his face and each thought that crosses his mind. But there are instances, too, when he is completely unreadable and this is when the monster reveals itself. Unlike Palmer, Riemelt is in his element when reacting with a co-star, whether it be Palmer or Matthias Habich who plays Andi’s father. I wish Andi’s relationship with his father had been explored further considering that there are hints in the dialogue that Andi’s life at home might have contributed to shaping Andi’s pathology.
It is both admirable and frustrating that the material is consistent on making a conscious choice to avoid the expected trappings of a story involving a kidnapped woman. On one hand, because it adopts an unconventional rhythm and pacing, occasionally the story is quite unpredictable. Initially, I was certain that Clare would it make it out of the apartment alive. Over time, however, I began to doubt a little since the character’s inner fire gets weaker. On the other hand, although the captive deserves her revenge, the final few minutes is uninterested in this. Indeed the choice to end the story where it did, despite it being quite unsatisfying, is a logical one.
Beautifully photographed especially when contrasting between indoors and outdoors, adventurous viewers are likely to appreciate “Berlin Syndrome” because there is a freshness to it when it comes to the writing and directorial choices, but casual audiences are probably going to dismiss it outright since it does not hit the usual or expected beats. I respect its vision and confidence.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“The Invisible Guest” is the type of mystery-thriller that invites you, teases you, to catch up to it. I found myself focusing on it so hard because I wished to be one step ahead that eventually I started feel as though my brain was undergoing mental gymnastics. By the end of it, I felt exhilarated from being enchanted by its spell. I imagine that those who are well-versed in twisty thrillers would find this work to be most entertaining. Even those who aren’t are likely to have a ball, too. It is one of those movies in which details matter most and so every second must count. No bathroom breaks here.
The near-ingenious thriller is written and directed by Oriol Paulo, who appears to love words and images equally. Characters are allowed to speak intelligently and for their motivations to make sense. Most of the story is told in flashback. In many films, even in thrillers that are supposed to be exciting, flashbacks tend to command a languid tone like they are mere appendages, side-notes to be considered but never really examined under a microscope. It is the complete opposite here. It is most appropriate that the backward look in time must possess a great sense of urgency, paired by Jaume Martí’s precise editing, because the plot revolves around a man accused of murder who is being prepped by a defense attorney hours before facing a judge.
However, the story is far from straightforward. There is a sea of lies, a wealth of interpretations, and possible suggestions. We even watch the events unfold from other characters’ point of view. Images, however brief, are coupled with every potential scenario. Just as the lawyer, Virginia Goodman (Ana Wagener) must extract the truth from her client, Adrián (Mario Casas), a young successful businessman, in order to create an impenetrable defense, we, too, must wade through the details. It is correct to establish that both characters are intelligent early on and so in order to outsmart them, and the picture, we are challenged to put on our best thinking hat.
Here is the situation: Adrián wakes up in a hotel room with his lover’s corpse (Bárbara Lennie). He claims that there was an attacker that bashed his head onto a mirror which knocked him unconscious for a few minutes. But when the authorities arrived at the scene, the room is locked from the inside. And because it is winter, the hotel staff were instructed to lock all windows from the inside and remove all the handles. There is no way in or out. Adrián’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon. It appears to be an open-and-shut case. But it isn’t because the entirety of the truth started three months ago.
“Contratiempo” builds momentum like one of those cartoon snowballs that get bigger and bigger as it rolls downhill until it is impressive enough to knock just about everything out of the way. At the end of it, I found myself wishing that more American thrillers functioned on such a high caliber. While there are details I caught that would—or should—push the police to get to the truth faster, it doesn’t matter because the film’s pace is so forceful in the forward direction that the experience is like having to put together hundreds of puzzle pieces in fifteen minutes—stressful, ridiculous, and a good time.
Affaire Farewell, L’ (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a member of the KGB who hopes to induce drastic changes in the U.S.S.R, is sent to meet with Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet), a Frenchman living in Moscow with his family during the Cold War. Sergei has important information that he wishes to relay to the French government, but when he discovers that Pierre is just an engineer with no prior experience in espionage, he insists that further partnership is not a possibility. However, he realizes later that the engineer is the perfect liaison: no one will suspect him of being a spy.
Adapted from Sergei Kostine’s book, “L’affaire Farewell,” directed by Christian Carion, is a thriller that is downplayed for the most the part, turning part of its attention on the mechanics of passing on information: from an unofficial Russian spy who hopes that his action will make a better tomorrow for his son, French officials so willing to earn approval from higher-ups, to the Americans who wish acquire advantage over their rivals. What does not work is when the material focuses on Sergei and Pierre’s problems at home. The suspense is impeded by melodrama.
The picture surprised and tickled me in that information being transferred from one group to another does not involve plans of political assassination, which areas will be bombed and when, or who is hiding where. Instead, considered highly valuable are things like notes on space shuttles, blueprints of a plane, scientific research, and the like—intellectual pursuits, a competition of knowledge, rather than of killing.
Though the Cold War is now the past, it remains fascinating. If anything, the film reminded me why I was fascinated with this specific time in history when I learned about it in high school. Also, though it is very relevant today, it made me consider that maybe I am getting a little bit tired of watching movies about the war in the Middle East. About eight times out of ten, they are indiscernible: played for entertainment rather than attempting to make a genuine presentation of the elusive truth and the horrors of war.
Suspense is embedded in the small moments: being followed by members of the Soviet party in the subway, being stopped and asked for papers, and sneaking into an office to acquire crucial files. It is likely that many of us are unfamiliar with Sergei and Pierre’s real-life counterparts, their stories, so it is unpredictable. In addition, the picture establishes an atmosphere of paranoia that it feels like that the duo can be caught at any time. Maybe there is a reason why their accomplishments are not known universally.
I just did not care for Pierre and Sergei’s personal lives. Scenes involving who is cheating, which father feels like his son is drifting away, whose wife is upset when she discovers her husband’s extracurricular activities—these are executed with not enough urgency. As a result, shots that might work—a close up, for example, designed to highlight the fears and desperation of the men and as well as their wives—feel like they are ripped right out of daytime soaps. If the professional and the personal spheres had been given opposite tones, exploring them might have felt more natural. Instead, what we have is a picture that is an effective thriller but an ineffective drama.
Open Grave (2013)
★ / ★★★★
A man wakes up among a pile of corpses and discovers a bite mark on his arm. Disoriented and with no memory of who he is, he comes across a gun and enters a house. There, he discovers five people who appear to be in a similar situation as he is. They decide to work together despite being suspicious that perhaps one of them knows exactly what is going on. While exploring the surrounding area of the house, a little boy calls the man Jonah (Sharlto Copley), the former clearly terrified of the man’s presence.
Movies with an interesting premise but failing to aspire to achieve anything else should not be tolerated by audiences. “Open Grave,” written by Eddie Borey and Chris Borey, is this kind of film—so devoid of horror, intrigue, and rudimentary idea of how to create a steady rising action, I wished the film were over less than halfway through. Almost everything about it is uninspired.
The screenplay lacks life despite a mystery that involves a group attempting to figure out who they are and why they are thrusted in an almost impossible situation. It does not have an ear for dialogue. Listen carefully to how characters speak. Ignore the voices and focus on the words and phrases. Notice that they talk almost in an identical manner. As a result, the characters come across wooden, mere figures on screen who do not inspire us to want to know them.
It relies on flashbacks to create a dramatic arc. This is almost always a mistake because it requires not only a first-class screenplay but also deft direction to make it work. Because so much information relies on flashbacks, the current events surrounding the characters are overshadowed. Thus, why set the film’s plot, including its climax, in the present when, clearly, the past is more important? Miscalculations this significant should not be overlooked—by the audience and the filmmakers themselves.
The confused characters scout the area for possible answers. Instead of the material focusing on answering the mystery, already dramatic scenes are overemphasized further by two characters staring intensely in one another’s eyes. Supposedly, that sort of thing triggers memories. I laughed at it at first but then I grew bored by it just as quickly. By the fifth similar scene, I was convinced it was only biding time in order to keep the mystery covered up. It is a charade designed to waste everybody’s time.
Despite some wide shots involving obvious CGI, I enjoyed looking at piles of dead, rotting human bodies. In movies of its type, I find that there is something beautiful about rotting flesh cobbled together in silence with buzzing of the flies highlighting the effect.
“Open Grave,” directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego, is insufferable. It makes one too many elementary mistakes that we wonder if the filmmakers had any inspiration to draw from. The characters are confused. More importantly, we are confused because the persons behind the camera fail to plan and execute a story that comes together in such a way that is adroit or even remotely original.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Kevin Donner and Zack Parker with a twisted imagination and a willingness to keep viewers on their toes, “Proxy” is a kind of picture that mainstream Hollywood dares not to make, let alone support, due to its lack of commerciality. But aside from its occasionally shocking content that dares to focus on characters with dark ideations, the film works as an exercise of style, so malleable and consistently interesting as it undergoes genre-bending acrobatics that would tickle even Alfred Hitchcock, its apparent inspiration.
The film quietly opens with a pregnant woman whose baby is about two weeks away from being born. Her name is Esther (Alexia Rasmussen) and, after engaging in a brief and impersonal exchange with an obstetric technician, we get the impression she does not at all seem excited to raise a child. Whether her sorrow is simply a part of her personality or due to her current state, we do not know. (Rasmussen knows this is the character’s hook and so the performer plays upon the mystique.) On her way to the bus stop, we witness Esther get mugged and her assailant, with a brick in hand, pounds away at the would-be mother’s belly. We do not see a glimpse of the attacker’s face, but we note the red sweater.
To reveal more about the plot and where it is going is to perform a disservice to those who shaped the picture. Notice the screenplay’s knack for efficiency, how nearly every other scene appears to reveal a pattern: characters tend to express or do things that they ought not to—at least not in public. Because every one of them seems to be damaged, perhaps even pathological, in some way, we attempt to understand these figures either through crumbs of their histories, which can be found in conversations, or the defense mechanisms they employ in order to be liked, regarded, and thought about by others. Those who have experience with a psychology course or two can have a field day with these subjects for the material almost requites to the viewer to peek underneath the facade in order to realize the horror lurking underneath.
In the middle of this beguiling suspense-thriller, I wondered what the screenwriters are hoping to communicate to the audience. Surely the film’s purpose is not only to entertain because the plot is not the propulsive kind. In fact, some stretches are quite ruminative, silent, and the camera fixates on a body language or face. It is willing to take the time to show what grief does to a person. How loneliness cripples from within. This is a story of desperate people who look pretty normal on the outside but screaming on the inside.
I believe Donner and Parker attempt to point at our humanity, or a largely unexplored part of it, something so embedded in our subconscious that none of the events that we see on screen—at first—should register as even remotely amusing. But as one looks at it further, dissects it, maybe it is funny, for instance, how far we go to keep our needs a secret—needs that are not socially acceptable, those considered to be morally wrong, ugly, dark, even sick. Perhaps the film is a critique of our society, the sacrifices we make to be “normal,” to belong.
Musings aside, Zack Parker directs “Proxy” in such a way that it delivers a memorable experience. Although the work can be criticized for the occasionally overwritten script, the actors being tasked to sell the more complex dialogue that befits a play, this shortcoming can be overlooked because nearly everything else functions on a high level. Here is a film for those with unconventional tastes, those looking for projects unafraid to take risks.
★★★ / ★★★★
Once in a while a film like “Searching” comes along to show that a device currently being used to tell certain stories is so limited, it manages to set a new standard. “Searching,” written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, directed by the former, unfolds, for the most part, on a computer screen, but it is confident enough to break from the conceit when the time is precisely right. In a way, allowing our eyes to focus on a box full of icons, missed call and voicemail notifications, webpages, and chat windows is an act of creating a sense of claustrophobia. Getting out of that box eventually is thus an act of exhalation and yet the tension remains since the mystery is yet to be solved.
The mystery involves a widower (John Cho) who begins to suspect that his teenage daughter (Michelle La) is missing after she failed to come home from study group and did not attend school the next day. His fears escalate when his calls go to voicemail directly, his texts remain unanswered, and discovering later on that the weekly money he gave his daughter for private piano lessons did not go toward that at all. In fact, the piano teacher claims that Margot had stopped her lessons six months ago. Cho is nearly every frame and he delivers a spectrum of emotions as a parent who grows increasingly desperate to find answers regarding his child’s whereabouts. It is said that great performers can tell a story even when being shot only from the chest up. I’ve never seen him this good in a lead role.
Perhaps most enjoyable about the picture is that it puts the viewer in the shoes of a parent who investigates. Following the mouse’s arrow going from one website to the next may sound unappealing at first, but those familiar with websites like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Gmail, Venmo, and Tumblr will immediately recognize the logic of the investigation. More importantly, however, those who are less familiar are still able to follow because it is shown that each one has a specific purpose.
For instance, Instagram is more aligned with posting a picture with a short caption underneath while Facebook tends to showcase statuses and events. Venmo involves currency while YouTube involves easily searchable videos (with toxic comments to boot). In other words, the technologies used within the conceit of staring at a computer screen is made accessible—crucial in telling stories that we can invest in emotionally.
The story offers a minefield of twists and turns. Particularly enjoyable is we get a chance to suspect that anyone and everyone could be involved in Margot’s disappearance—even the father who is apparently so distraught, he would be willing to attack another person in public just to get the next big clue. At one point, I wondered whether the parent was simply using the various technologies to record his misery and all of the effort he put in finding his daughter—just so he wouldn’t be a target of suspicion by the authorities. (I suppose that shows the way I perceive humanity at this point.) Better yet—even when a figure in Margot’s life may no longer be a suspect, we wish to take a closer look. Just like Cho’s character, we cannot help but wonder if we made a mistake in treating something trivial but turning out to be critical in order to solve the puzzle.
“Searching” knows how to build suspense effectively, from the way the score builds from silent to frantic down to the manner in which editing is utilized to paint a picture of how a father feels when he has finally discovered a trail of breadcrumbs. But even when there are breadcrumbs, an individual makes so many footprints online that we wonder if these crumbs would lead to another dead end. But that is what skillful mystery-thrillers tend to offer: A series of hopeless situations illuminated only by opening a locked door after sleuthing and taking on seemingly insurmountable hardships.
You Were Never Really Here (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
It is not often that I walk away from a film not knowing what it is about exactly but at the same time feeling like the ride is somewhat worth it. “You Were Never Really Here” is based on the book by Jonathan Ames and it is directed and adapted to the screen by Lynne Ramsay, a writer-director who is no stranger when it comes to uncompromising pictures that show violence externally and, perhaps more intriguingly, internally. Her familiar approach is present here but the structure of a hitman going on a mission that he is eventually blindsided by is twisted and manipulated in such a way that it becomes almost poetic.
It is difficult to recommend the picture because it not made for everyone—or even most people. It is, I think, for viewers who are open to what cinema can be or provide outside of a typical three-arc structure in which we know exactly where it is going, what is going to happen, and how it will end. The action is interlaced by flashbacks, imaginings, and traumas so detailed that it is never necessary for the material to stop and explain what is unfolding. Based on our life experiences, what we see in the movies or television shows, what we read in books or hear in music, it is up to us to construct what we believe is happening, and I think there is power in this approach.
Joaquin Phoenix plays an enigmatic man named Joe who is tasked to rescue a girl from a sex trafficking ring. The performance looks effortless but that is what’s brilliant about it. There are extended sequences here in which the viewer simply gets the chance to observe a consummate actor exercising his craft. Joe comes from such a violent and troubled childhood that the man who grew up from such toxicity is angry, violent, unpredictable. And yet notice Phoenix’ level of control. For instance, when the character is agitated by an external factor, the first response is almost always extreme violence. Now watch how Phoenix reels that monster back in toward a more calculated rage. A wise director, Ramsay ensures that the camera captures the performer’s eyes—they turn from monstrous to a child riddled with fear but does not know what to do with it.
On the surface, perhaps the movie is about channeling one’s trauma (“bad”) into a service (“good”)—rescuing an underage girl and punishing those who deserve it. But, looking closely, I believe it is not that simple because the performance communicates that the service provided does not function as therapy. On the contrary, as the goes pictures on, there is an increasing number of opportunities for us to glimpse into his fractured mind. Clearly, he is not made healthier by his actions. Note how slowly he moves, as if he were sleepwalking, and the state of his unkempt body. This is a man on the path of self-destruction.
There are stretches of great frustration for me, particularly in the contrast between tension-filled scenes but the protagonist moving as slow as molasses. Had the story been more straightforward by amplifying its action-thriller elements, for example, it could have been a crowd-pleaser. But that is not the movie that was made and I appreciate Ramsay’s willingness to deliver upon her specific vision. What results is a work that is probably worth seeing once given that those willing to dive in are in the mood to be challenged.
Killing Ground (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Stern-faced horror-thriller “Killing Ground,” written and directed by Daniel Power, is propelled by a painfully standard premise involving a couple (Harriet Dyer, Ian Meadows) camping in the wilderness who find themselves in a life or death situation. But what prevents it from becoming a typical fare of blood and violence is a non-linear storytelling in which tension is allowed to build for about half the picture’s running time until the inevitable meeting between killers (Aaron Pedersen, Aaron Glenane) and victims.
Shot in a matter-of-fact manner, one gets the impression initially that the picture has nothing to offer but a grim exercise of showing one sick imagery after another. Obviously influenced by filmmakers like Wes Craven and Michael Haneke, Power possesses the ability of showing gruesome violence while keeping a hold of restraint. Notice numerous instances where a weapon is not shown to make direct contact with the body. We are shown the aftermath and everything else is left to the imagination.
For a while it is difficult to pinpoint which of the couple will be the survivor. In a movie like this, one can usually guess correctly who will end up dead by the first act and who will make it to the hospital black and blue with broken bones. Contributing to the unpredictability is the type of storytelling. Seeing the story through the eyes of the now-dead victims, murderers, and future victims keep us on our toes. While we are busy trying to put the pieces together, it leaves little time for the camera to fix itself on the obvious lead protagonist.
But this isn’t to suggest that there are well-written characters to be found here which is a major disappointment since the material shows great potential. I found them to be pedestrian, vanilla. For instance, I wished to know what motivated the murderers to kill. Is it in their nature? Has life pushed them to become psychopaths? Dialogue suggests one or both of them have been in jail at some point, but no further detail is spared. As for the couple, their relationship is quite boring. Not once do we get a sense of what they see in one another. Individually, neither of them is that smart or resourceful when it comes to dealing with problems. But perhaps that is the point: Sam and Ian are merely ordinary folks caught in an extraordinary situation.
While “Killing Ground” is a decent thriller to watch during a cold or rainy night, it is not a standout in the genre. If the script that had undergone further revisions to enrich characterizations, it might turned out to become a different beast entirely. It is unfortunate because its style is appropriate for the story it wishes to tell. For a more realized film by comparison, please check out James Watkins’ unrelentingly brutal, foul, and near-brilliant “Eden Lake.”
Sweet Virginia (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Curious dramatic-thriller “Sweet Virginia” is so sparse in its look and content that the viewer is compelled almost immediately to consider not only where it is heading but also what the point of it is, if any. Is it a genre exercise? A character study? One of those thrillers that pivots halfway through when we least expect it? One thing is certain: It is the story of two damaged men, Sam (Jon Bernthal) and Elwood (Christopher Abbott), a former rodeo champion turned motel manager and a sociopathic killer, respectively, who must meet simply because destiny requires that they do. I found it poetic in its simplicity.
The casting choice is inspired because one looks at the physicality of its lead actors and one might assume that Barnthal ought to play the murderer-for-hire and Abbott the motel manager. Given the former’s body frame is quite large and muscular, that he commands a domineering presence, it feels appropriate—it fits—that he portrays the person who commits a triple homicide in the opening scene. On the other hand, Abbott’s physique, by comparison, is smaller, his face angelic at times depending on the lighting. The default state of those eyes communicates a certain loneliness, like that of a bird yearning to be free of its wounded wings. By playing upon the less expected, our curiosities are piqued. Note how both performers play their characters with quiet desperation. It is an intelligent choice because without this similarity, the drama would not have been as potent.
One might critique the work for simply being composed of one buildup after another. While I do not disagree, in my eyes, it is not a shortcoming but a fresh choice to tell a story. The rising action is done well: it is suspenseful, always intriguing, and nearly every scene makes a statement about how complex humans are… even if they happen to be monsters. I admired the camera’s willingness to keep still, particularly when two people are facing each other, both in profile relative to the viewer. We may see only half of their faces, it is likely they have something to hide, but their body language communicates everything.
The look of the picture is foreboding because nearly all colors have been sucked out of their vibrant energy, the element that makes them stand out. It encapsulates the lifestyles of these characters and the small Alaskan town they live in—the inhabitants know that the ennui of the every day is draining the life of them but most of them either do not have the means to make a change or have surrendered to the way life has been for generations. I enjoyed that the folks in the background look like regular people; as they make their way to the foreground from time to time, they may not say anything but their accessible presence made me curious about their stories.
Directed by Jamie M. Dagg, “Sweet Virginia” is not for those who cannot tolerate deliberately slow pacing. Although the premise promises violence, and once in a while we come across it, it is not so much about violence but rather why people result to violence and the aftermath of it. Although not the most exciting thriller, it is full of suspense. There is a difference and this film wields an understanding of it.