What motifs, when implemented well, make for an effective thriller? The wrongly accused man whom no one believes, the dogged pursuer who engages in ruthless indifference, the chaotic statewide manhunt, the methodical quest to clear one’s name, the righteous anger when the time for confrontation arrives. The Fugitive employs all of these and more almost effortlessly, and is as close to a perfect thriller as I can think of. It’s not just that the film is so exciting every step of the way, not just that the stunts are pulled off flawlessly or that every cog in the story’s mechanism turns believably, its simply that Harrison Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble as so relatable, so likeable and engaging that all the stuff I mentioned before, whether or not executed well, actually matters. The lynchpin scene that hooks us in occurs early on when a dipshit Chicago police detective (Ron Dean, who would go on to get shot in the face by Harvey Dent later in his career) bluntly interrogates Kimble after his wife is found murdered. Ford plays it it straight up, his raw reaction at being accused of something so unthinkable sears the screen, and as he pounds the table and pleads with them to “find this man”, we are immediately and unconditionally on his side, a lot to pull off in one scene but Ford is up to it and this may be his best performance ever. After that it’s a careening adrenaline rush of a chase film as the prison bus Kimble is on is hit by a speeding train, one of the finest pieces of blow-shit-up staging I’ve ever seen, propelling the man on a relentless ditch effort to find the mysterious one armed man who actually killed his wife (a far too short lived Sela Ward) and exact retribution. Tommy Lee Jones is a walking stick of C4 as US Marshal Sam Gerard, it isn’t so much his job to track down Kimble as it is his compulsion, the man is a calculating force of nature. Although put in Kimble’s path as the obstacle, the script treats him and his team with respect and intelligence, they’re not just mindless drones to keep plot and action sailing but fully formed human beings who start to unravel the mystery right alongside the good doctor. The film hurtles along from stunt to crash to chase to brutal fistfight and these sequences have since become iconic, especially that fiery sonic boom of a crash and the legendary standoff between Ford and Jones set in a storm drain leading off of a raging river dam hundreds of feet below. Everything just works in this film; Ford supplies charisma, subtle humour and inspires empathy all while kicking serious ass and evading capture in ways that would make Jason Bourne jealous, Jones chews scenery in the best way possible and is every bit the worthy adversary and eventual sympathizer, while Jeroen Krabbe, L. Scott Caldwell, Daniel Roebuck, Joe Pantoliano, Andreas Katsulas, Tom Wood, Richard Rhiele, Nick Searcy and Jane Lynch all provide excellent work. Julianne Moore shows up in what appears at first to be a cameo as a suspicious nurse, but she was originally written in for a larger role as a new love interest for Kimble. The film cut her scenes and abandoned this subplot, a very wise move as it would have cheapened his arc and gone the cliche route. Simply put, this is a classic and a textbook example of the magic possible in the action/adventure/thriller genres. Brilliant.
I’ve never understood the dislike or lacklustre reception for Gone, a moody, propulsive suspense thriller starring Amanda Seyfried. It’s not especially groundbreaking or crazy in any way but it’s a solid genre piece with a lead performance that proves once again what kind of pure star-power she has, enough to carry a film and then some. She plays a girl that allegedly escaped the clutches of a serial kidnapper/killer who tossed her down a hole somewhere way out in the wilderness. The cops never really believed her as there was no actual proof and their searches turned up fuck all, but she won’t be deterred, especially when her older sister (Emily Wickersham) seems to vanish into thin air one night and she’s convinced the guy has returned. Once again the lead detectives on her case (Daniel Sunjata and Ray Donovan’s Katherine Moennig) give her the skeptics eye and she has no choice but to launch her own solo investigation, a dangerous option but the girl has no shortage of bravery. Inherently creepy looking Wes Bentley plays another cop who is decidedly more helpful for his own reasons, but he exists mainly as a red herring and ultimately doesn’t do much of anything useful. This film is about her journey and not so much her destination, as it’s essentially a heightened Nancy Drew yarn fuelled by a constant vibe of suspense and blanketed in the thick atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest region where it was filmed. When her eventual confrontation with the killer does come, it seems a bit after the fact and even rushed, but it was never the point anyways, as the story’s effectiveness lies in her relentless search and resilient, charismatic tactics to discern each clue along the way. The cast here is full of gems, including Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter as her waitress boss, Joel David Moore, a very young Sebastian ‘Bucky Barnes’ Stan, Nick Searcy, Socratis Otto and legendary tough guy Michael Paré as the Lieutenant of the local precinct who is helpful but stern and concerned about Seyfried’s seemingly drastic actions. Don’t let any negativity spoil a fun evening in with this one, there’s really nothing to hate about it. Tightly wound, nicely acted by everyone, and shot with the benefit of the Northern locale. Admittedly broad and farfetched in terms of plotting, but what thriller isn’t here and there anyways, get over it. Mainly it worked so well for me because Amanda is such a vivid, present actress who can hold a scene like nobody’s business and really commits to her craft. A diamond of a flick in my books.
Fried Green Tomatoes is one of those films that presents two narratives, simultaneously woven together and unbound by the laws of past and present. A character from the present tells tales of the past, and the film jumps ever back and forth between the two, until a connection emerges. You’ve seen it in stuff like The Notebook, where it works beautifully, and both stories support each other. That’s the issue with this film: One of the narratives is lovely and works quite well. The other? Mmm…not so much. Kathy Bates plays a hospice worker in a retirement home who is charmed by stories of life, freedom, injustice and romance from long ago, all told with wit and passion by an excellent Jessica Tandy. She tells of life growing up during the early 1900’s in the American southwest, of free spirited tomboy Idgie (a fierce and emotional Mary Stuart Masterson), the girl she loves (Mary Louise Parker, radiant) and the whirlwind of trouble and conflict going on around them. Idgie lost her brother and best friend (a short lived and very young looking Chris O ‘Donnell) to a horrible accident, and sort of has a lost pup complex, holding on to Parker for dear life and trying her best to extricate her from an abusive relationship with her monster of a husband (Nick Searcy is evil incarnate). It’s whimsical, touching and flavored with just the right touches of sadness and danger. Now, the story with Bates in the present just feels aloof and silly. The scenes with her and Tandy fare better than glimpses of her home life and attempts to empower and change her for the better. Don’t get me wrong, I love that idea, the notion of inspiration transcending time and the ability to help others simply with the spoken word and the wisdom of the past, but it just didn’t work in this case. As for the scenes in the past, I fell hard for them. Masterson is a terrific actress who usually gets saddled with light, fluffy roles, but here gets a chance to let some raw emotion out. Parker is more reigned in but every bit as soulful, as the girl in a situation no one should have to endure, her soul practically screaming out through those beautiful brown eyes. I suppose you could say that it’s half of a great film, that couldn’t quite pull off it’s own narrative flow.
Up until two days ago, I had never seen Cast Away. Not once in my life. I know, try not to have a heart attack. I knew the whole story, each and every beloved plot twist mapped out for me by eager friends, word of mouth, online fare and pop culture over the years. I just never sat down and actually watched the darned thing. Well I did two nights ago, and damn if I didn’t wish I’d done that sooner. It’s every bit as incredible as I’ve heard all this time, and more so. It’s one thing to know everything about a film just because of its notoriety, and quite another to see it, obviously. I experienced every scene, every landmark event in the film for the first time ever, and my foreknowledge of it did not dampen one wondrous second of the experience. Few films bring you as close to their protagonist as this does, for two and a half patient, spellbinding hours in the life of a man whose path has taken a turn for the extraordinary. Tom Hanks is the right guy for the job, and then some. He’s immediately likeable and exudes currents of good nature and humility. Perfect casting choice. He plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx honcho with a busy life that scarcely makes room for his doting girlfriend (Helen Hunt). One Christmas eve, he’s forced to run out on her for an overnight package flight. As we all know, his plane crashes somewhere in the South Pacific, and he’s forced to survive on a deserted island for almost half a decade. We feel every empty minute, every momentous triumph right alongside Chuck, from the first dazed stroll along the wave speckled beach of his new home, to the final, raging ditch effort to find his way back to civilization. Director Robert Zemeckis let’s this larger than life tale unfold with steady, earnest shots and a down to earth score, a very simplistic approach that let’s Hanks do most of the heavy lifting. And lift he does, in a performance of sheer courage and transformative qualities. We see Chuck go from suburban joe and real world businessman to a near feral being, forged into something more than himself by the same forces that govern and mold the geography which he now inhabits, while never losing his humanity in the wild chaos. The time spent stranded is sandwiched between two segments that bookend the film, in which we see his life in civilization before, and eventually after his experience. The impeccable pacing tricks the audience into feeling like we’ve been watching this play out for as many years as he’s been living it. I mean this as a profound compliment to the filmmakers and not to say the film ever drags, in fact, for a two plus hour running time it feels surprisinly slight. It all rests on Hank’s shoulders, and he carries it beautifully, selling this man’s plight with truth, humour and resilience. An experience for the ages, and one that you should see right out of the gate in your cinematic exploration, as opposed to waiting till your mid twenties like someone we know. Masterpiece.