Deceiver is classic 90’s noir, with a dash of trashiness and a unique cast all suited to the bottom feeding material. It trips along in the same gutter as stuff like Basic Instinct, another film that is simultaneously aware and smugly indifferent to the fact that it’s scummy stuff. Almost every character is a reprehensible, unlikable twat, save for one surprise cameo. I may have just put you off the film, and to many who don’t see this type of thing as your cup of tea, please avoid it. But to those like me who appreciate a nice bit of grimy fun, well this is your ticket. Tim Roth plays Wailand , a wealthy and arrogent young heir to a textile mill. He is under suspicion for the brutal murder of a prostitute (Renee Zellweger) who was found in a park, cut in half. The two detectives who are tasked with hassling him seem almost as dodgy as he is, and when you look at the edgy character actors who play them it’s easy to see why. Detective Braxton (Chris Penn) is buried in gambling debt, owing a tidy sum to nasty loan shark Mook (Ellen Burstyn). Detective Kennesaw (Ann explosive Michael Rooker) is a rage fuelled whacko who is furious at his wife (Rosanna Arquette) for having affairs on him. Wailand has both the cunning nature to see this weaknesses in both of them, and the money to do something about it. This makes the detective’s job very hard, being stymied by their quarry every step of the way. Wailand also has mental issues including blackouts and strange episodes of personality alteration that Roth takes full advantage of in the scenery chewing department. It’s pseudo psychological mumbo jumbo that the actors play straight faced for a thriller that’s quite the endearing little flick. Rooker stands out with his trademark volatility that will put anyone’s nerves up to defcon 4. Roth has a ratty, evil looking face. Nothing against the dude, he just looks like he’d slit your throat in your sleep for a dollar. He’s great as suspicious characters, and has fun here being the wild card. Penn is his usual huff and puff self. Character actor Michael Parks has an awesome cameo as a psychiatrist with a monologue that almost lets the film wade out of cheese territory. Great cast, great flick.
John Hillcoat’s Triple 9. Bloody. Nasty. Blistering. Nihilistic. And surprisingly deft in its presentation of character. The only clear cut, out and out protagonist is Casey Affleck’s Marcus Allen, a young detective with a wife and kid, brutally unaware that he’s been targeted by a group of stunningly dirty cops and a few ex special forces hardcases to bite the dust in a planned homicide, sparking an ‘officer down’ over the airwaves to distract the force from what’s really going down. With the exception of his straight arrow heroics, the entire rest of the cast is a snake pit of depraved, slimy, reprehensible degenerates, populating a decayed, gang infested Atlanta where the cops are just as likely to empty a clip into your skull as the cholos. Chiwetel Efjor plays Atwood, leader of a most unfortunate crew of misfits who are forced to perform near suicidal heists for tyrannical Israeli-Russian mafia bitch Irena (a bleach blond, terrifying Kate Winslet). Their newest venture is so impossible that they’re attempting to use a slain officer as a ditch effort to get their stake. Of course it all goes to high hell, as we’ve come to expect and love in these type of films, with bullets, profanity, self destructive behaviour and wanton violence languishing all over the screen in glorious excess. Efjor is crackling good, showing brief glimpses of humanity in a dude who has lost his soul down a deep dark well, a caged animal fighting tooth and nail to no avail. The rest of his crew spend the film savagely trying to out – sleaze each other, and I mean that in the best way possible. They are really a bunch of snot rags, and this is a group of outstanding actors having bushels of fun being irredeemable bad boys. Anthony Mackie is walking C-4 as Efjor’s right hand, a guy rotten to the marrow with moral conflict. Norman Reedus leaks grease as an ex special ops prick and their getaway driver. I didn’t think Aaron Paul could be anymore despicable than in breaking bad, but somehow manages it here, playing a dude so grungy you’ll squirm. It’s Clifton Collins Jr. who scores the points though. He hasn’t had a great role in years and he comes out blazing as the icy sociopath of the group. Then there’s Woody Harrelson. Oh, Woody. He’s clearly having a ball as Affleck’s stoner uncle and high ranking cop. He spends the entire film ripped off his gourd on joint after joint, and take it from me, he knows how to play stoned impeccably. Despite the laconic bumbling, he shows that fire and ferocity we’ve come to know from him in brief unmistakable flashes, especially where it matters. Throw in Teresa Palmer as Affleck’s loving wife and Gal Gadot in full slut mode and you’ve got a cast for the time capsule. Hillcoat wastes not a second in propelling his narrative forward with the force of a bulldozer, giving us minute moments of respite amongst the surging monsoon of bloodshed and dirty deeds. Composer Atticus Ross whips up a foreboding, hair raising war cry of a score that kicks in from the first frame and doesn’t quit till the last shell casing has hit the ground. The only misstep the film makes is killing off its best actor way too early on, vut its not enough to be an actual concern or hurt it overall. If sickeningly satisfying ballets of blood, broken limbs and morally bankrupt people engaging in all kinds of giddily fun criminal activities are your thing, this is a great way to kick off the year, cinematically speaking. Hell even if it’s not your thing go check it out. It’ll shake your shit up and then some.
Attempting a remake of any great film is always a questionable endeavor. I can remember seeing Erik Skjoldbjærg’s terrific Norwegian psychological thriller Insomnia at the theater on my college campus back in 1998 and thinking that an American remake would be rather pointless. The themes would never travel (especially the underage sexuality), how could one outdo Stellan Skarsgård, and how could a filmmaker capture that eerie atmosphere in a new and unique way? It was never going to be an easy task, but Christopher Nolan continued his hot streak with his stylish and underrated 2002 updating, which felt like the next logical step for him as a filmmaker after his breakout indie success Memento. Al Pacino gave a tired and tortured lead performance as a cop struggling with intense inner demons not to mention the inability to get any sleep; this is a film that touches on noir (daytime noir!) and the serial killer genres but still remembers to load the narrative with interesting character beats and small bits of surface details that all add up to a riveting mystery. Robin Williams gave one of the best performances of his career as a chilling psychopath who always seems to be one step ahead of Pacino and the authorities – that chase sequence he has with Pacino across those drifting logs in that chilly river is spellbinding stuff, with Nolan using incredible sound effects and expert spatial geography to heighten the tension. Williams brought a devilish smile to numerous scenes, and his unpredictability always kept you guessing, even within the relatively predictable confines of studio based genre entertainment. Martin Donovan, Nicky Katt, Hilary Swank, and Maura Tierney all offered solid support. This was a nervous, jittery piece of work from Nolan, who would later fashion a more controlled, rigid aesthetic in Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy (The Prestige looks even more unique these days) before moving on to his magnum opus, Interstellar. Wally Pfister’s slick yet gritty cinematography worked in perfect tandem with David Julyan’s haunting music and Dody Dorn’s taut editing. Remakes of already excellent films are rarely this effective.
20 years ago, New Line cinema dropped a dark hearted cinematic wake up call in the form of David Fincher’s immortal serial killer thriller Seven. It made a legitimate star out of Brad Pitt, giving a nervously twitchy and playfully cocky performance as a young cop who thinks he knows what he’s getting himself into, and it further cemented Morgan Freeman’s status as a premiere acting force, giving him the chance to riff on the sage, retiring detective character made famous by so many genre offerings. And rather importantly, Seven boldly announced Fincher as a serious directorial talent to contend with, affording him the chance to take material that was directly up his casually cruel cinematic alley, and put his own distinct and rigorous aesthetic stamp all over it. To this day, the film remains frightening and startling to watch, as the twists and turns still feel fresh and diabolical, even when you know how it’ll all finish up. I vividly remember seeing this film on opening night in the theater, at the age of 15, on the same weekend that Showgirls opened, and I can still feel the unease that settled in over the sold-out crowd during those final moments, when we all realized what exactly was in that box out in that field.
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s brilliantly constructed screenplay withstands the utmost scrutiny, and demands total respect; this is a perfect cinematic onion, revealing layer upon layer of themes and narrative implications as each section is peeled off and removed. One of the most fascinating aspects of the entire film is that while it’s a crisply plotted procedural, the psychological undercurrents were never glossed over, with the film exploring the true root of evil, with explanations that feel scarily honest and all too believable. And the fact that the ending remained in tact, after much deliberation and wrangling and ultimatums, is still one of those “Thank The Cinema Gods” moments where the money people and the creative entities could all come to terms with exactly how they knew a film should finish. Darius Khondji’s elegantly nightmarish cinematography is the stuff of legend, each shot museum worthy, while also displaying a sense of grit and atmospheric dread and danger that immediately pulls the viewer into this hellish world on display (wisely, the exact city in the narrative is never explicitly mentioned). Arthur Max’s haunting production design evoked urban decay in ways that few modern films have ever done; this movie feels like it’s rotting at the core. The exacting editing by Richard Francis-Bruce knew exactly how to accentuate each and every scene for maximum impact, while the unnerving score by Howard Shore filled the background, never overpowering, always accentuating. And it goes without saying that the opening credits sequence is one of the most dynamic and influential bits of title design ever put on screen (this is an area that Fincher has always excelled at in all of his incredibly stylish feature films).
When Kevin Spacey shows up at the top of the final act the movie somehow gets even more sinister than it had already demonstrated, and the way he needles both Pitt and Freeman during that infamous car ride is a full-on demonstration of how Spacey knows exactly how to own a scene with total command. While attending California State University at Northridge, I had the insane opportunity to view Seven on a frame-by-frame basis, and studying how Fincher controlled his filmmaking was more than eye opening. Close to 98% of the film is shot with a stationary camera, only going hand-held in a few key instances (the hall-way shoot-out near John Doe’s apartment; portions of those climactic moments out in the field), and it was thrilling to see how Fincher and his team were able to heighten fear and suspense more with camera set-ups and pacing than anything else. Seven leaves more up to your imagination than it was credited for doing, as way too many people complained of excessive violence, which, to be honest, just isn’t there on the screen. Yes, clearly, there are more than a few gruesome sights on display, but in comparison to some other genre entries, Seven feels carefully and intelligently restrained in every single area, while always allowing for the idea of horrific human behavior to be lurking in every corner. This is a great and influential piece of filmmaking that ages like a fine wine.
Sidney Pollack’s The Yakuza, released in America in 1975 after a Japanese premiere a year earlier, is a unique neo-noir gangster hybrid boasting an excellent script written by Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader, and Robert Towne. Despite not being a box office hit at the time, the film has certainly gained a cult following over the years, and it was a movie that had always escaped my grasp. I’m so glad I finally caught up with this exceedingly entertaining drama, one that’s spiked with some truly great action scenes and a narrative that’s engaging on a story and emotional level. Featuring a solid-as-oak Robert Mitchum as an ex-private investigator who returns to Japan in an effort to rescue the kidnapped daughter of his friend, there’s a distinctive quality to this movie that’s hard to describe. There’s a great mix of hard-core shoot-outs and bloody sword play, Dave Grusin’s music supplied tension and grandiosity in equal measure, and the thoughtful and at times ruminative screenplay stressed character and motivation and thematic context rather than being an empty display of action. Ken Takakura provided more than just a steely gaze, injecting the film with a sense of lethality and wisdom, while supporting cast members Brian Keith, Richard Jordan and Herb Edelman made the most out of their distinctive roles. Especially Jordan, whose unique face was able to convey just as much information than the script ever could. But it’s Mitchum who totally owned the picture, bringing his customary gruff line delivery and masculine sense of purpose to this exotic and violent story that traded off of noir tropes and the demands of the action picture in equal measure, with Pollack’s sure and steady directorial hand bringing it all together in a very elegant, crisp fashion. The rich screenplay investigated themes of moral and social expectations on the part of the Japanese culture, and how familial loyalty and personal friendship can be tested through the differing viewpoints of Eastern and Western school of thought. Ridley Scott and his creative team would heavily borrow from this film for the 80’s classic Black Rain, and clearly, this must be a favorite for Quentin Tarantino.