Posts Tagged psychological thriller

The Wall

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Doug Liman.                   Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli.

Two soldiers, a sniper, and a crumbling stone wall. As Scott Renshaw pointed out, this scenario basically writes and films itself, which makes the occasional stumbles all the more frustrating. Even with those stumbles, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) does a good job of milking this premise, crafting a tense thriller in which a cat and mouse game is set against the backdrop of the “won” Iraq War.

Criticism of the Iraq War and the notion that there could be any victory from that mess abounds throughout the film. The first title card tells us in 2007 the USA declared victory and the war was over, but the irony and dishonesty of that claim is highlighted by the opening shot of two soldiers camouflaged as they observe an oil pipeline where soldiers had been ambushed by an attack. Later, when the sniper hacks their radio signal, he asks them what they’re still doing in his country if the war is over. Finally, the closing shot will remain one of the most surprising conclusions of any film this year, and it strongly reinforces the notion that the Iraq War is unwinnable.

The film’s politics are unmistakable, but they are never heavy handed, and they provide added tension to the confrontation between Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli). Less successful is the backstory for Sgt. Isaac which is hinted at throughout the film, but when it’s made explicit in the last act, it comes across as a half-baked attempt at guilt and trauma which adds nothing to the psychological and physical standoff between the soldier and the sniper.

The other major misstep of the film is the scriptwriter Dwain Worrell’s decision to make the sniper a genius psychopath more knowledgeable than Hannibal Lecter who knows everything going on inside Isaac’s head, has orchestrated his plan to the last unexpected detail, and is fazed by literally nothing. Eventually, the characterization begins to approach caricature.

However, the cat and mouse game is largely successful due to the commitment of the actors and Liman’s skilled directing. At ninety minutes, the film moves along briskly even as it never changes location. I questioned the wisdom of a couple cuts to the sniper’s point of view – they really dissipated the tension – but otherwise, the editing brilliantly redirects our attention from the one soldier to the other, to the wall, to the corpses scattered around the pipeline, and to any possible location of the sniper. Liman knows precisely where to place the camera to achieve a balance between knowing what is happening and feeling just disoriented enough to share in the soldiers’ confusion and discomfort.

The Wall doesn’t make the most of its premise, but it gets enough out of it to be an engaging and thoughtful thriller with a worthwhile cross examination of the costs of invading Iraq, and Doug Liman proves his chops for directing action sequences once again.


Personal Recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, intense violence, including brief but graphic images of bullet wounds.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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The Babadook

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Jennifer Kent.  Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, and Tim Purcell.

The nearest point of comparison to The Babadook is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in that both are horror films which begins as films about a frightened, psychotic child then transitions to a film about a frightened, psychotic parent. I have seen a few critics call The Babadook superior to The Shining, and while I understand the reasoning behind that claim, (the transition from child to parent focus is more subtle and unnerving) I’m not sure I can go quite that far, although a second viewing may change my mind. However, I will give The Babadook this: it’s scarier than The Shining.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, whose husband died nearly seven years ago as he was driving her to the hospital to deliver Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Amelia has never really accepted her husband’s passing, and while she occasionally visits her sister and stops to chat with her kind elderly neighbor, she has mostly shut herself and Sam alone in their house, with their main outside interactions being work and school.

Sam naturally does not fit in at school or among his peers. He is obsessed with monsters and loves telling stories that disturb not only other children but their parents as well. His favorite hobby is building weapons to fight the monsters. He smuggles those weapons to school in his backpack, and some of them would be extremely dangerous and painful if employed against a child. Amelia responds to the school’s concern by promising to have a serious talk with Sam, and when they suggest psychotic evaluation, she pulls him out of school with plans to find another one.

The setup is perfect for a horror film. Sam’s bratty behavior and obsession with outlandish tales of monsters make it so that almost no one would believe him if he really were in danger. Amelia’s desire to keep up appearances of normalcy, even as she increasingly isolates herself and her son so no one knows of their troubles, makes her foolish decisions believable and prevents any of them from being clichéd, stupid horror film choices, even when she copies one of Jack Torrence’s reckless actions in The Shining. Noah Wiseman is terrific at portraying a the terror of a child who *knows* that he and his mother are in danger from the monsters in the basement or in the closet as well as the determination of a child to protect himself and his mother. As Amelia, Essie Davis fluctuates perfectly among a deeply concerned mother, a neglectful and barely coping parent who expects her child just to behave on his own, and a mother exasperated by her son’s disobedient behavior.

The source of the horror stems from the tension between mother and son and the way it undermines the love that both of them ultimately have for one another. The Babadook is a character in a morbid children’s popup book, and it first appears when Amelia reads the book to Samuel before bedtime, unaware of the gruesome nature of the story. What was an effort for mother and son to bond gives birth to the thing that threatens to destroy them. When Sam begins insisting that he can see the Babadook and that they are in great danger from the monster which it is impossible to get rid of, the strain of such claims begins an escalation of sleepless nights, anger, resentment, and threats of violence which would be unsettling without the aid of a demonic presence. With the possibility of some unknown monster, it’s terrifying.

First time feature film director Jennifer Kent makes two great choices. She eschews trumped up special effects and gore, and creates an atmosphere of dread though suspense and suggestion, which she heightens with brilliant editing. Whenever a character is in jeopardy or frightened, the camera cuts to the next scene right before the resolution, leaving the outcome uncertain and starting a new conflict before the viewer can fully relax from the previous one. Kent also wisely avoids portraying the Babadook as a traditional scary monster which would make the audience jump on first sight, but then calmly sigh (and laugh) once they had seen it. I won’t spoil the minimalistic appearance, but it assists the menacing atmosphere of the film.

If I have any complaint at all about The Babadook, it is this: about an hour in I said to myself, “If this is going where I think it is, it’s going to need a twist.” It went where I thought, and it did have a twist, but I will need a second viewing to determine whether the twist is strong enough to work. I am inclined to say it is, because it cleverly ties together two earlier themes, and it reminds the viewer that:

Once you invite him in by reading his book,
There’s no getting rid of the Babadook.


Content Advisory: Much terror throughout, deeply disturbing scenes of violence between a parent and child, off-camera masturbation, and occasional rough language.                   Not rated; would be R.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A

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Perfect Blue (Pafekuto Buru)

Year of Release: 1997     Directed by Satoshi Kon.               Voices of Junko Iwao, Rika Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, and Emi Shinohara.

“Excuse me…who are you?” Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) nervously repeats her only line as she prepares to shoot her first scene as a television actress. After a successful career as a Japanese pop idol, the young celebrity wants to expand her work to include more serious forms of entertainment. However, change is difficult, and due to obsessive fans and crippling self doubts Mima begins to question her profession and her identity as hallucinations that blur her television series with her personal life cause her perception of reality to start slipping away.

On the other hand, Mima’s hallucinations might not be projections of her uneasy subconscious. It is clear that a devoted fan is stalking her, the threats she has received are very real, as are the murders of those who exploit her vulnerability.

Then again, the police can find little connection between the murders, and by the time they happen, Mima is already so upset and self-conscious that she is sure everything is somehow connected to her. Regarding the obsessive fan, after the opening scene where he threatens a rioter trash talking Mima, no one notices him again. Mima is the only one who sees him loitering in the shadows everywhere she goes.

To compound Mima’s confusion and anxiety, a devoted fan has set up a webpage called “Mima’s Room,” which functions as an online diary of Mima’s daily activities. When she first discovers it, Mima is amused at how well one person knows her idiosyncrasies. However, as the online account deviates more and more from her daily activities as an actress, instead detailing her daily activities when she was a pop star, Mima begins to wonder which version of her life is real. To make things worse, Mima is discovering tangible proof in her apartment of the online account of her supposed activities, activities of which she has no memory.

The driving force behind Mima’s fear is a projection of her subconscious which criticizes every choice she makes, calling her a traitor to her real self. Mima is susceptible to these criticisms, because she does feel uneasy. She misses her friends with whom she used to perform, but more notably, the television executives are writing scenarios that are freakishly similar to her personal life, and they are exploiting her and trying to force her into racy situations that will boost ratings. The first appearance of Mima’s critical subconscious is synchronized with the arrival of a script that demands she film a rape scene. When Mima is tricked into a nude photo shoot, the subconscious informs her that she is no longer the real Mima and that the real Mima (the subconscious) will return to performing as a pop star while the actress fades into obscurity.

Until the very end, it remain unclear whether Mima is being driven insane by a dangerously obsessed fan, whether her own guilt is making her uneasy, or something else entirely. The depiction of this uncertainty and the possible surreal obfuscation of multiple mentalities is what Perfect Blue captures brilliantly. The editing effortlessly fluctuates between different realities, and towards the end, the film begins to show repetitions of the same event. One time it is depicted as it takes place in Mima’s television series, the other time it is within the nightmare of Mima’s subconscious. Each version concludes with Mima waking up in her apartment, distressed and confused, heightening the mystery of what is real and what is not.

Perfect Blue was released in 1997, and director Satoshi Kon makes excellent use of the novelty of the internet. The world wide web was a new phenomenon and obsession, and in the film it is used to manipulate Mima’s perception of reality as well as mirror her uncertainty as she begins a new career. Even five years later, that sensation would have been lost.

The film is also very culturally aware of other horror films, and there are references to two of the greatest psychological thrillers concerning split personalities and character transformations: The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. The television series Mima is filmingconcerns a serial killer who skins his female victims so he can become a woman, like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Another scene refers to a role that Jodie Foster played before The Silence of the Lambs. And the ending takes a page directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece.

Before his tragic death in 2010 at age 46 from pancreatic cancer, Satohsi Kon directed four feature length anime films and created one anime television show. Perfect Blue was the first of those, and it is an incredible achievement for a debut film, capturing a terrific sense of mystery and showcasing the danger of obsession that twists reality until it is almost unrecognizable.


Content Advisory: Graphic depiction of rape, full frontal nudity, several very gruesome murders, and an atmosphere of horror throughout.                         Not rated, would be NC-17 if it were live action.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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Eyes Wide Shut

Year of Release: 1999     Directed Stanley Kubrick.  Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Madison Eginton, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Julienne Davis, Vinessa Shaw, Sky Dumont, Rade Sherbedgia, and Leelee Sobieski.

I realize Eyes Wide Shut is a controversial film among not only Christians but moviegoers of any belief.  Stanley Kubrick’s final film is known for its graphic sexual content, and it is understandable that many viewers, especially Christians, would wish to steer clear of it.  Kubrick’s final cut of the film even received an NC-17 rating, which the producers changed to an R after his death by digitally altering several sequences.  However, when released on DVD, Kubrick’s initial cut of the film was restored as he had intended.  Therefore, wouldn’t it have been safe to assume that this film, regardless of whatever artistic merits it had, crossed the line into pornography and off-limits to any discerning viewer?

I have admitted this before: I am a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick as a director, and I trust his artistic decisions.  In his twelve previous films, he never degenerated into gratuitous content, and even the most raw and explicit content in those films served a purpose to the story and challenged the viewer to consider his preconceptions and reactions to the material.

While Eyes Wide Shut certainly contains content that would make many viewers uncomfortable, and would earn it accusations of being pornography from casual viewers, the context in which the sexuality is portrayed causes it to serve the exact opposite purpose of pornography.  While it might be possible for a porn addict to use the sexual scenes for pornographic intent, by doing so he would be doing the very thing the film strongly condemns. Does it bother me that a porn addict could use the sex scenes in the opposite way of how they are intended?  No, a drug addict could find a scene criticizing drug abuse to be a source of temptation.  Everyone suffers from different temptations triggered in different ways.  What each viewer is capable of watching is up to that viewer to determine.  Eyes Wide Shut does not encourage any temptations, and it depicts unbridled lust as degrading and dehumanizing, which gives it a pass in my book.  Kubrick also films the scenes in a creepy, surreal style that makes them anything but alluring.

If one substituted sex for violence and nudity for gore, Eyes Wide Shut could easily be analyzed as a horror film.  And I think Kubrick’s final film is, in many ways, a horror film every bit as creepy and disturbing as his conventional horror film, The Shining, with the main difference being that instead of the protagonist becoming isolated and his family threatened due to a violent nightmare, the protagonist here becomes isolated and his family threatened due to a sexual nightmare.

The groundwork for Dr. Bill Harford’s (Tom Cruise) dangerous sexual odyssey is laid at the beginning of the movie when he and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) attend the Christmas party of their friend Victor (Sydney Pollack).   While there, Bill is asked to give medical assistance to a naked prostitute who overdosed on cocaine.  While he is occupied, a sleazy Hungarian (Sky du Mont) heavily hits on Alice asking her, “Why a beautiful woman who could have any man in the world would want to be married.”  He expounds on his question, saying that marriage as an institution only exists because in former times women were afraid they would never have sex unless they tied the knot; now, such formalities are thankfully no longer required.

The Hungarian functions very similarly to the creepy old man who gives the unheeded warning and then disappears in a regular horror film.  He is knowledgeable about a world of which the protagonists are unaware, but there is a disconcerting atmosphere about him, which should give the protagonists enough warning not to explore that world of his, but of course they do.

When Alice questions Bill about where he disappeared to at the party (he had last been seen flirting with two young, attractive women), she gleefully mentions her flirting with the Hungarian.  Bill is not perturbed, because “women are faithful, but men are just like that (fantasizing about adultery, but never committing it), but he was not like that with those two girls.”  Alice finds this rationale less than comforting, and as revenge proceeds to tell Bill about an affair she wished she had had a year ago.  The news shocks him, and after completing a house call, Bill begins traveling down an increasingly twisted and sinister sexual nightmare of observation.  Neither one of them ever consummates their lust, but their observations and fantasies have consequences every bit as dangerous as if they had.  Standing in the midst of fire observing it is just as dangerous as playing with it.

Bill’s nighttime journey, which begins with solicitation from a prostitute, proceeds to underage prostitution, and it culminates with a bizarre, sinister orgy where all the participants are masked.  The orgy is a total expression of sex divorced from marriage or any relationship, about which the Hungarian rhapsodized at the film’s beginning.  Kubrick films the sequence with distant tracking shots, exaggerated angles, and interrupted zooms to highlight disturbing nature of the demonic ritual, which is every bit as unnerving as anything in Blue Velvet or The Silence of the Lambs.  (Additionally, the final line of Eyes Wide Shut contains the same type of horrific yet darkly comic undertones as Lecter’s final line in The Silence of the Lambs.)

The color red plays a prominent role in Eyes Wide Shut, underscoring the danger of unrestrained desire and fantasy allowed to run amok.  Bill’s first connection to the dangerous nighttime orgy is formed at the Christmas party when he helps the redheaded prostitute.  That same prostitute later warns Bill of the serious danger he is in when he observes the orgy, which begins in a room with a vibrant red carpet, organized by a man in a bright red cloak.  The marijuana induced argument about marital fidelity between Bill and Alice is framed against their mahogany bedpost.  Bill first hears of the nighttime ritual from his friend Nick (Todd Field) after walking through a red hallway with red lights to enter a bar.  When Bill is solicited by a prostitute, the red door to her apartment complex stands out against the drab building.  When he arrives home, deeply perturbed, Alice wakes up from a nightmare in which she participated in an orgy as Bill observed.  As she relates the dream, the camera focuses on the dark red bed sheets.  To emphasize that Bill’s sexual adventures leave no one in his family safe, his and Alice’s daughter Helena (Madison Eginton) has red hair.

The red is inescapable, and it bleeds over into both fantasy and reality in almost every shot.  The final explanation, which takes place next to a bright red pool table, only further mystifies the dark proceedings, causing the viewer to question what is real and what isn’t.  The blurring of nightmare and reality is introduced in the opening scene as  “Waltz 2” from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite underscores the opening titles and then segues into source music as Bill and Alice prepare to leave for the Christmas party.

The entire film is deliberately paced like a surreal nightmare.  When Bill and Alice realize that they need to wake up, they have recognized the horror, but the fantasy has saturated their lives, and consequently their proposed solution is a different facet of the same problem.  If that doesn’t make Eyes Wide Shut a horror film, I don’t know what does.

At the very beginning before her parents leave, Helena asks if she can stay up until they come home.  Alice tells her that would be too late.  Once they leave, perhaps it already is.


Content Advisory: Many explicit sexual scenes, full-frontal nudity, child prostitution, some drug use, occasional profanity and obscenity.  Unrated; was NC-17

Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Denis Villeneuve.       Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo.

Prisoners is shaping up to be the 2013 entry in the category of “films which everyone else really admires but Evan passionately dislikes.”  At least I do not dislike it nearly as much as I dislike last two years’ entries in that category.  And I promise to try not to be too snarky, but I cannot make any guarantees when I dislike a film this much.

In the movie’s defense, there are two strong points: there is a late third act plot twist that is kept hidden pretty well, and it does cast a new light on proceedings, even if it also creates other problems.  And the best thing about the movie is Roger Deakins’ cinematography, lots of long still takes, which would have worked well with the material to create a tense atmosphere if anything else had worked.

Very early in Prisoners, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating local child molesters, and he stops by a local Catholic church to question the priest.  Loki finds the priest passed out with several empty liquor bottles.  He begins investigating and finds a secret basement door.  Inside the basement, he finds a man who was beaten to death after being tied to a chair with his mouth duct taped.  The priest (an elderly man who walks very slowly and could never have overpowered a younger man) says the dead man came to him in confession and told him that he (the dead man) was at a war with God, and to make people lose their faith, he had kidnapped, molested, and murdered sixteen children, and boasted that he was going to continue doing so.  Therefore, the priest decided the only thing he could do without breaking the seal of Confession was to kill the man.  Believe it or not, the priest is telling the truth, and the movie ultimately vindicates his actions.

EDIT: After some discussion with friends, I will admit that “vindicates” is too strong a word.  “Excuses” or “turns a blind eye to” is a better way to express my opinion of the film’s conclusion.

The priest’s actions are vindicated excused by Keller, played by Hugh Jackman in a performance so over the top that it reminded me of John Goodman’s “You’re entering a world of pain” tirades from The Big Lebowski.  While absurdly over the top performances often work well in comedies, Prisoners is about as far removed from a comedy as possible.

Keller becomes obsessed with Alex (Paul Dano), believing against all odds that Alex kidnapped and is holding his daughter and her friend captive.  To extract information Keller sinks to dehumanizing levels of torture that made most of the audience gasp and cringe in shock.  I found his tactics so repulsive and alienating that I was hoping he never found his daughter.  She didn’t deserve a father as brutal and unethical as that.  Even the sadistic Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was more humane than Jackman’s character.

The third act twist (half of which I predicted within 20 minutes of the opening) makes it quite clear that Keller’s actions were no different than the kidnapper/molester/murderer’s.  The villain kidnapped and tortured two six year olds, and Keller kidnapped and came within inches of killing a man with the mentality of an eight year old.  However, Keller had good intentions while the villain did not, so as Keller’s wife tells Loki, Keller is a good man who did what he needed to do for his family.  As Loki silently nods, it makes logical sense that the murdering vigilante priest is also good man for doing what he needed to do to protect innocent children and atone for his past crimes.

There is one scene when Keller begins the Lord’s Prayer.  When he gets to the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those…” he stops.  It is a nice sentiment, but it is too little too late, and the rationalization which follows undermines the effect that the scene could have had.

Towards the end of the film, Loki thinks he has solved the mystery.  But director Dennis Villeneuve still wishes to make the audience squirm.  Therefore, Loki- a skilled cop –  inadvertently releases a bunch of poisonous snakes that one of the suspects kept only for a ludicrous plot point.  That was the point when I officially gave up on the film.

There is an obligatory scene when Loki thinks he has failed, shoves everything off his desk, and then repeatedly smashes his keyboard.  At that point, I started laughing.  Even though an innocent man has been tortured within inches of death, a man has committed suicide, two girls have been presumably drugged, raped, and murdered, that scene was so extreme I lost it.  Then Loki notices a clue in a crime scene photo he had missed; IT IS THE CLUE HE NEEDS.  I half expected him to jump up and dance around while the “Hallelujah Chorus” played; it would not have been out of place.

I can imagine why Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard would agree to do this.  The premise had potential, and the movie has a veneer of being a serious thriller.  I cannot imagine what possessed Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo to be a part of this absurdly over the top, bloodlust mess.

There are a few critics who have observed that Prisoners screams: “Nominate me for an Oscar!”  If the academy actually goes for this (and I hope they don’t), hopefully Deakins will be recognized.  His work is the only thing in the movie that warrants mention.

Content Advisory: Many intense graphic depictions of torture, themes of child abduction and abuse, disturbing images, drug use, and some harsh language.                       MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: D

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