E. Elias Merhige’s Suspect Zero is an interesting piece for me. Although it’s almost universally looked at as a failure, a shell of what it could have been, I’m crazy about it the way it is and think they did a fantastic job. It has a bit of a muddy past: Zak Penn wrote the script back in the 90’s, after which it gained much interest from the likes of Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and others. It took until 2004 to finally get the film made, resulting in a version that many frown upon and consider a shitty film. Balls to them.
This is a grim, eerie serial killer chiller with an atmosphere thick enough to slice with a razor, and one extremely unsettling lead performance from a haggard, haunted Ben Kingsley. He plays Benjamin O Ryan, an ex FBI agent. Or is he? He’s efficiently hunting down and murdering random people (or are they?), leaving vicious visual calling cards and deliberately leaving victims lying on state lines to ensure the Bureau’s involvement. In particular he takes a shine to raw boned Agent Mackleway (Aaron Eckhart), leaving specific clues for him. O Ryan employs a metaphysical method of finding his victims, using an old psychic technique from a scrapped program the feds once explored. This gives extreme stylist Merhige a reason to throw sketchy, disconcerting images, sounds and editing into the fray, providing a visually and aurally chafing experience. Merhige is infamous for making the surreal, experimental shocker ‘Begotten’, and he brings the same stark, discomforting qualities to the proceedings here. I’m reminded of another experimental director who brought a near elemental aesthetic to an otherwise grounded serial killer flick: Tarsem Singh with his brilliant psychological fantasy ‘The Cell’. Suspect Zero is the grimy, fragmentary cousin to The Cell’s grandiose beauty. There’s also traces of Sev7n, Silence Of The Lambs, Millennium and more, yet the film finds its own groove and never sinks into derivative gestures. Composer Clint Mansell ditches his trademark celestial tones for something truly unique, a dread soaked nightmarish lullaby that gives the film an otherworldly tone to linger in dreams.
From Kingsley’s unnerving introduction hunting down a stranger on the interstate to his haunted, sympathetic final moments you get a feel for this extreme character that only this actor can give, infusing O Ryan with a zen like resolve that’s perforated by the psychological damage within. Eckart shows brittle desperation and blesses his performance with a touch of noir, which is appropriate to the film. Harry Lennix, Kevin Chamberlain, Frank Collison, William Mapother, famed writer Robert Towne and Carrie Anne Moss all give great work too. If you can forgive a few instances of murky plotting and one or two cheap plot turns, you’ll hopefully enjoy this as much as I do. It really deserves better attention and praise than it has gotten so far.
Swordfish tries so hard to be cool, and save for a few moments of smirking silliness, it is pretty goddamned cool. The early 2000’s still carried lingering, reminiscent elements of the 90’s, the super cyber hacker archetype included. The cyber hacker is played by two types of people: basement dwelling, Mountain Dew drinking chatter boxes and virile, sexy supermodels. The latter is employed here, personified by Hugh Jackman as Stanley, a sly devil who can hack into almost anything effortlessly, but has been caught and never allowed to touch a computer again. Enter Gabriel (John Travolta), a silver tongued arch villain out to steal all the money and priceless artifacts he can hope to ever own. Although Travolta isn’t as truly off the rails as in some of his villain roles, the amiable charm he puts forth here is but a ruse to cloud the monster beneath. He’s a very bad man, putting Stanley’s loved ones in jeopardy and forcing him to work computer wizardry for ill gotten riches. Gabriel has a girlfriend named Ginger (Halle Berry, never sexier) who walks a moral tightrope between the two alpha males, torn between roguish indifference and and her conscience. Stanley is also hounded by an FBI Agent (Don Cheadle), with whom he has a tumultuous past. The film resists goin completely by the motions, lulling you just to the border of entropy and then throwing something surprising from a direction you didn’t look in. My favourite scene of the film shows Travolta giving a monologue on bank robbery etiquette, complete with a reference to Sydney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, confirming the fact that this flick has a strong script to go with its pyrotechnics. He flexes his sonic directorial muscles in an especially extraordinary action sequence involving a bus and a helicopter that will seriously make your finger hover over the replay button. Vinnie Jones is an ambassador of cool, in a lively turn as Gabriel’s head thug. Sam Shepherd has fun as a corrupt Senator. There’s also fine work from Zachary Grenier, Tim Dekay, William Mapother, Rudolph Martin and Drea De Matteo. Director Dominic Sena comes from music video land, having also helmed the priceless Nic Cage Bruckheimer-fest Gone in 60 Seconds, as well as the fallout brilliant psycho road thriller Kalifornia. Here he doses the flash and sizzle of 60 seconds with the hard hitting violence of Kalifornia, presented in a story guaranteed to raise a pulse. It’s also got pretty much the coolest poster of 2001. I dare you to find a cooler one, go ahead. Oh, and Travolta’s manscaping here deserves its own spinoff film.
In The Bedroom is tough cinema, packed with the kind of substance and human drama that often drives casual viewers away, their psyches scorched by the lack of generic plotting and warm, fuzzy story arcs. To those who actively seek out realism, heartbreaking emotion and films which probe the complex corners of the human soul for answers that weigh heavier in your thoughts than the questions, this one is a treat. It lulls you in with an opening montage of summer romance, giving you no context of the challenging character arcs to come. We begin with Frank (Nick Stahl) a man barely out of his teens, in the midst of a passionate fling with Natalie (a fantastic Marisa Tomei), a woman far older than him who has two kids and a troublesome ex husband (William Mapother). Frank’s parents differ on their opinions as far as his relationship goes. His no nonsense mother (Sissy Spacek), calmly disapproves, while his loving father (Tom Wilkinson) encourages simply by sitting back and going along with it. Then, out of nowhere, the plot takes a sharp turn into tragedy. Frank is killed in a struggle involving the volatile ex husband, leaving everyone behind to grieve. This film isn’t content with a simple, standard grieving process. It insists on holding a steady, nonjudgmental gaze upon the parents, and the agonizing state they are left in. The killer is released on extended bail. The mother is torn apart knowing he is out there. The father actively downplays the devastation simply because he isn’t capable of letting out what’s inside him, twisting him in silent despair every moment of every day. Wilkinson is emotional dynamite, like a bleak cloud with flashes of sorrowful lightning beneath, a time bomb of implosive sadness. Spacek carries herself magnificently, especially in a third act verbal showdown with Tom that leaves you gutted and stunned. These two play their roles with uncanny precision, every movement and mannerism a roadmap leading straight to the core emotion, and shellshock of the tragedy, still being absorbed by their characters with every frame we see. It’s a brave script for any group to undertake, and one which you must go into utterly prepared or you will either fall short of telling the story to its potential, or be consumed and disarmed by it, and arrive with a finished product with a tone deaf mentality. Not this one. Every aspect is treated with care, attention and focus by all involved, miraculously pulling this hefty piece off without a hitch. It’s often a struggle to sit through films that don’t make you feel all that great, films that tear off the superficial cloth that much of cinema is cut from, delving beneath for an unwavering look at what really goes on in this world of ours, be it large scale or intimate. It’s important to experience this occasionally though, as it can often teach you valuble truths and awaken parts of your perception that lie dormant during a lot of other movies. This one won’t hold your hand and provide an emotional blueprint for you to follow, but in being let off the leash, the experience may just be more rewarding.