Tag: thriller

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.

Don’t Let Go


Don’t Let Go (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

God answered Detective Jack Radcliff’s prayers. Having wished that his family’s murder be undone, Jack (David Oyelowo) receives a phone call from his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid), despite the fact that she was one of the three (Brian Tyree Henry, Shinelle Azoroh) who perished in what appeared to be a home invasion. Jack, somehow in active communication with Ashley three days before her death via phone, figures he is given a chance to discover the identity, or identities, of those responsible and put a stop to them. He assumes that should he succeed, Ashley’s life, and possibly her family’s lives, would be spared.

During the first thirty minutes “Don’t Let Go,” written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes, has the makings of an engaging thriller. From the moment it begins there is a foreboding feeling that something will go horribly awry and yet when it is time to face exactly what it is we expect, we cannot help but feel disturbed anyway. Notice the patience in direction and control of the camera as the detective examines his brother’s home and the bloody corpses that lay before him. We feel we are in that space, breathing the air of those no longer alive. But despite the horror that transpired in that house, there is no protracted screaming, yelling or crying. The stillness of the camera suggests that the filmmaker wants us to have enough time to imagine what might have occurred. We are placed in the shoes of a detective the moment we enter the murder house.

But the work does not function on a high level on a consistent basis. The tricks, particularly as we are shown what occurs between the past and the present in “real” time, get old eventually. I think the problem, for the most part, is a lack of rules. It is difficult to make a convincing time travel movie, let alone a genuinely entertaining one filled with creativity and enthusiasm. Precise rules must be created, enacted, and followed—which this film proves to have trouble with. For instance, it does not tell or show us how many chances Jack has to get the answer right and solve the murders. Why should we care when Jack has a hundred lives and therefore a hundred chances? If he has only one chance, that is an entirely different scenario. Thus, knowing he could only fail so many times is directly correlated to the plot’s tension.

The solution is predictable, not at all a challenge for those well-versed in mysteries. That is one thing. The villain’s, or villains’, motivation is another. It is so generic that it conflicts—rather than complements—with the plot’s rather fantastic premise. Take away the time travel element and what remains is just another wan thriller set in Los Angeles. What makes the picture special then is a gimmick—one executed with mediocrity. And that is a big problem. The third act is mainly composed of especially boring, uninspired trivialities. It is a drag to the finish line.

The heart of the picture is the relationship between Jack and Ashley. Oyelowo and Reid share a warm chemistry that is immediately believable. He encourages her optimism, sense of humor, and artistry. She considers him more as a big brother than an uncle. Having shown us the depth of their connection, we understand why Ashley’s death is so heartbreaking for Jack that he would be willing to grab onto a shot at redemption. But the work is a thriller first and foremost. Dramatic elements must be supported by a thorough and well-written screenplay. The twisty turns certainly demand it.

Arctic


Arctic (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

With less than three pages of dialogue, “Arctic” delivers entertainment on the gut level. Many of us have encountered this plot before: a plane crashes on the icy mountains and the protagonist struggles to survive. However, what separates this film from its less impressive contemporaries is a lack of ostentatious display. We are not shown the plane crash that sets the story in motion. No breaking out of unconsciousness and the confusion that results afterwards. There is not even one subtitle that informs the audience how long it has been since the crash. We are simply and quietly encouraged to make assumptions based on the numerous details around the site.

Mads Mikkelsen is perfect in role a like this. He has the gift of being able to take one emotion and change it completely within two to three seconds using only his eyes. Notice the close-up when he sees a helicopter and it appears that those inside have noticed his need for rescue—just as quickly, hope turns into despair. But he excels not only when he looks into the distance. Early scenes involve his character, Overgård, looking, studying, pondering over the objects in his hands, whether it be a fish flopping about, a pile of rocks, a map. We do not need dialogue because his entire being—although silent—communicates clearly and with purpose every step of the way.

It assumes that the audience is intelligent. A great example is when the camera shows a map. We know the location of Overgård’s camp site because it is circled with a black marker. However, everything else around it is in black and white; there are various depictions of height due to hills and mountain ranges. Marked, too, is a path from the crash site to another familiar location. There is a legend with shapes and names next to each one. It is likely that those with a limited understanding of how a seemingly simple map works are likely to be lost or confused.

The writing by Joe Penna and Ryan Morrison, the former directing the film, is patient. It does not wish for the audience’s minds to go on autopilot—so unlike adventure movies these days. The map is shown at least ten times—and yet not once does it comes across as repetitive. The more we look at it, the more understanding we have of it. With every note that Overgård makes on that map, we gain an understanding not only of his path or his plans, we begin to understand how the map works in general. On top of this, we gain an appreciation of how the protagonist thinks and the strength of his fighting spirit. Eventually, the map is opened and we do not only look at the places he is labeling. We become confident of our ability to read this map and so we search for alternate routes should the plan fail to go as as expected. (It is a survival film. Of course it won’t.)

“Arctic” is offers numerous small surprises should one is willing to look closely and carefully. I wished that the score were less prominent at times or had been removed altogether because silence tends to amplify the sense of isolation. Note the instances when Overgård suspects he may not be alone in a place he thought was safe. Silence underscores the sound made not by him. Still, the work offers a riveting experience, one that we want to cling onto until the very last shot.

10×10


10×10 (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

As far as abduction thrillers go, “10×10,” based on the screenplay by Noel Clarke and directed by Suzi Ewing, is relatively standard in its execution in that opportunities are not taken once and for all to end the life of either the hero or villain until the very last act. It goes by the rule that the running time be as close as possible to ninety minutes. There is great frustration to be had here: Since the characters do not make desperate moves in life or death situations, we never become invested in the survival aspect of the story. However, there are enough plot twists which warrant a light recommendation for those looking to turn off their brains for passable, superficial, and forgettable entertainment.

The abductor named Lewis is played by Luke Evans—a role that any actor with an athletic physique can play. Although Evans is believable in the role—in fact, he appears unchallenged here—the character is neither written with depth nor in such a way that the drama is rooted in something real, tangible, or relatable. Relatively fresh, however, is that Lewis is no common criminal. Having stalked Cathy (Kelly Reilly) for months and finally making a move to kidnap her, in a very public place, no less, we learn quickly he is not motivated by money or sex. Then what does he want?

This reveals the weakness of the screenplay. It takes too much time to get to the point—to reveal the motivations of both predator and prey. As a result, the momentum during the middle portion remains stagnant for the most part, only punctuated by silly chases that end quickly. At least these scenes are edited in such a manner that we have a complete idea of the action. It could have been edited so manically but there is some degree of patience here. Still, viewers are certain to think or yell at the screen: “Grab the gun!” “Shoot him!” “Stab him!” When a gun is located only a few feet away, Cathy chooses to run to the kitchen drawers and search for a knife. She fails even to grab the biggest one. Common sense is far from the picture’s forté.

For a film that takes place in a limited space, it does a solid job in getting us familiar with the setting. For instance, the ten-by-ten soundproof white room surrounded by padding is initially nondescript. But as violence unfolds, it gets dirtier, we see bugs and blood, imperfections on the floors and walls. As for the living space, it is quite detailed. Because Lewis does not reveal much about himself during the first half, we look closer at the decor, photographs, paintings on walls, piles of magazines and books. Does the home look and feel as though it houses a family or a bachelor?

“10×10” is competent but never impressive, tolerable but never that interesting. Its look is rather standard and the camera angles employed are not daring or even playful for the sub-genre. In the middle of it, I began to wonder about my shopping list, whether I had jotted down everything I needed for my next trip to the supermarket.

Escape Room


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.