From May 2016

La chambre des morts: Better Than a French Demme Knock-Off

La chambre des morts. 2007. Directed & Written by Alfred Lot; based on the novel by Franck Thilliez.
Starring MĂ©lanie Laurent, Laurence CĂŽte, Éric Caravaca, Gilles Lellouche, Jonathan ZaccaĂŻ, CĂ©line Sallette, Fanny Cottençon, Nathalie Richard, Jean-François StĂ©venin, & StĂ©phane Jobert.
MĂ©tropole Film Distribution/Mongrel.
Rated 14A. 118 minutes.
Crime/Mystery/Thriller

★★★★
POSTER La chambre des morts, translated into English roughly becomes Room of Death, is a solid and under-seen French thriller that folds together crime, some horror, and a ton of mystery into a film which many compare to The Silence of the Lambs. Not sure exactly why that is, or well, I know why that is but don’t agree. I love The Silence of the Lambs, don’t get me wrong. However, the relationship between these two films only comes because of the hunt for a serial killer, supposedly intelligent psychopaths, and of course a strong female detective. These are big elements of the Thomas Harris adaptation.
Yet La chambre des morts isn’t a copy or a cheap knock-off. It doesn’t even particularly do any homage to the Jonathan Demme Hannibal Lecter romp. It remains its own film and provides us with enough macabre, sick thrill that you can easily find charm without relying on comparisons to other cinema. One major reason for why the film works is because it doesn’t stick with all the time honoured tropes of the crime-thriller genre. Neither does it totally rely on the stomping grounds of Clarice Starling in order for it to sell the fact women drive its plot. Writer-director Alfred Lot adapts the novel of the same by Franck Thilliez – a book I’ll soon need to track down a copy of – and he almost dares us to assume what’s about to happen next. Using strong directorial choices alongside the powerful acting talent of the lead cast, Lot crafts La chambre des morts into a work of crime-thriller cinema that’s worth far more than being relegated to the realm of a French Demme homage.
This has a lot to offer. Certainly one of my favourite French thrillers between 2000 and 2010. I do love some of the New French Extremity films which came out just before and around the same time as this one. However, there’s something to be said for a subtle, well paced, morbidly exciting work of mystery.
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I’m always a sucker for a good screenplay that’s capable of weaving several genres into one. Especially if it’s done seamlessly. Some of the best examples, in my opinion, are the classic Alfred Hitchcock slasher spawning Psycho and Zack Parker’s more contemporary horror-thriller Proxy. At the start, you begin to imagine this is less of a police procedural mixed with a serial killer dramatic thriller, and more a small, personal crime drama. Instead, the screenplay by Lot keeps you wondering. From one scene to the next, you’re never quite sure where things are headed. The plot and its events even get weird from time to time, in the best sense. Certain movies can fall into the trap of trying too hard if they’re switching between different elements, such as this one how it hops between the procedural format (similar to Demme’s classic) and the outright grim atmosphere of a mysterious horror. This is exactly where Lot gets it right with his directing style and writing. He balances the separate elements in a way that comes together perfectly near the end. There’s almost a Gothic-type feel to this story, as well. Not sure if that comes predominantly from the novel by Thilliez, or if this is something instilled by the director-writer Lot. Either way, the finale of the film does have a slight Demme-esque moment where you feel like Lucie is very much right next to Starling in spirit, but the Gothic tone and setting gives this a unique twist, allowing it to exist in a space with all its own creepiness.
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The female element in this story is what drives my interest most. Not often are there serial killer films which tackle a woman’s perspective. Certainly not one which extends to several lead characters. Even The Silence of the Lambs remained focused solely on Clarice Starling, and that was excellent. La chambre des morts is able to encompass several different aspects of womanhood: the main character MĂ©lanie Laurent plays whose responsibilities lie between being a tough single mother to being a tough police officer tackling gruesome murder cases; likewise, one of her superiors is female whereas other movies might opt for a typical older policeman; and well, you’ll figure out the other one.
So for a crime-thriller, this one finds itself in a small group where women get to take on the serial killer, they get to play all the roles usually reserved for men. With somebody like Laurent, the main character Lucie is so well performed. She isn’t some typical cop, neither in writing nor in how Laurent portrays her. Lucie is not a burnt out detective, she’s not particularly cynical or optimistic. She sits somewhere in the middle; a new mother, a woman that takes her job seriously and knows it just as well. We’re always going to be reminded of Jodie Foster as Clarice when it comes to these types of films. Although Laurent injects this character with enough of her own talent to not let this role be defined by another. This is the first movie in which I’d seen Laurent and I’ve gone on to enjoy her hugely in Enemy most of all. She’s an excellent actor.
Both Laurence CĂŽte and CĂ©line Sallette are equally as compelling as Laurent. The story of their characters alone is interesting enough. But more than just that they give us highly emotional performances that are tragic. Between the flashbacks and their relationship within the frame of the film’s plot we discover the deep sadness that exists within these women. Most of all, I love that these characters are women because so often men get these complex nasty characters they play while women, in crime-thrillers such as this, often wind up as the nagging wife to a career oriented cop, or some other stock character of the genre. Here, CĂŽte and Sallette play terrifying people, though they are the complex and rich sort of characters women are not yet afforded enough. This is a great example of how interesting a serial killer thriller can get if only you allow for atypical characters that Hollywood isn’t giving much of, if at all. Between these two and Laurent this film is stacked with talent that adds authenticity and, more importantly, emotional weight to the writing.
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This movie is far too slept on by many. If you have an aversion to subtitles, get over it and start watching these get French films you’re missing out on! La chambre des morts is absolutely worth watching. Not only does it have a fresh perspective, the story and its various plots come together in such a fascinating way that it provides an exciting finale to take you through its conclusion. Laurent helps sell a huge part of the film, as do CĂŽte and Sallette. In fact, all the supporting cast do a spectacular job with their roles, too. Nobody misses their mark.
The direction of Lot and his adapted screenplay from Thilliez’s novel makes for such a wonderful experience that I’m honestly at a loss as to why more people don’t know (and love) this movie. All the unique elements work together, which are exciting, disturbing, wild. That leaves the rest of us who’ve found our way to Lot’s movie a little French treat that is likely to remain in your mind long after those credits roll across the screen.

Scarce is Finger Lickin’ Bad

Scarce. 2008. Directed & Written by Jesse Thomas Cook and John Geddes.
Starring Steve Warren, Gary Fischer, Chris Warrilow, Thomas Webb, John Geddes, Jesse Thomas Cook, Stephanie Banting, Gavin Peacock, Matt Griffin, Jaclyn Pampalone, Jackie Eddolls, & Jason Derushie.
Bloodlife Films/Two Door Four Door Pictures.
Rated 18A. 93 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★1/2
POSTER Some movies are so bad they’re good. Others are just downright bad, to the point you’re unable to enjoy anything about them other than fleeting moments. Often times you can find enjoyment in a bad film because it’s fun to laugh, poke fun, point out all the bad effects, performances, and whatever else makes you chuckle a little. In certain situations depending on the film, this can make for a so-bad-it’s-good cinema experience.
Then there are horror flicks like Scarce, which cross over into the so-bad-it’s-embarrassing category. This little Canadian horror is never quite able to find its footing. A few scenes are creepy, a bunch are gory and nasty. Other than that it’s poor acting, uninspired directing, and a general mash of ill conceived attempts at tackling the backwoods cannibal horror it so clearly reveres.
Funny. I had a better time watching the Making Of documentary included on the DVD than I did watching the film. That’s only half a lie. I always try to find the good in each movie I watch, no matter how bad it gets. Problem being that there just is not good in every movie. Not all art is art – some of it’s pop, some of it’s art, some of it’s trash. Those are the odds. And odds are, you’ll also agree with me on this one.
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One of the immediately awful parts about Scarce is the fact it’s a Canadian production, clearly filmed in Canada and with Canadian actors, yet they’ve insisted on making it out as an American setting. First off, the accents of a couple actors give away this whole fact. Secondly, I’m not entirely sure why they would bother doing this when there are plenty of backwoods locations across Canada where you can set an isolated film such as this one. Often it’s to appear more commercial, though I’m still not sold on that being of any use.
Later, it isn’t just the performances that are weak. Even little moments that are meant to be scary or dramatic come off as weakened thuds, rather than landing with any impact. For instance, at one point Ivan (Steve Warren) whacks Dustin (Thomas Webb) as he exits the outhouse, and this not at all any type of large stunt, it’s not expensive or intricate, but it looks like absolute dog shit. Small moments like this come off as poorly conceived and executed, which does nothing for the film overall. Only makes the amateur, low budget feel of the movie more evident – this doesn’t always detract from independent cinema, only when it’s painfully obvious, almost pathetically so like here.
The acting is what really does Scarce no justice. While certain elements of the plot and a couple nasty bits of blood are intriguing enough, there’s no good acting to be found. And I don’t care how interesting of a story, or how creepy any of the scenes can get, without solid acting there’s no way any movie can rise above its flaws and feel enjoyable. Although, I have to give it to Steve Warren. Sometimes he can be the worst of them, in terms of performance. All the same, in comparison with his murderous counterpart played by Gary Fischer, his work is decent. In a couple scenes he’s terribly cheesy and forced, but every now and then he’s eerie beyond belief. So even if his acting isn’t close to great, he’s certainly one of the better parts about the performances even if he shits the bed in his role from time to time.
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The backwoods cannibal sub-genre in horror has been done time and time again. Many of us horror fans love a good dose of cannibalism, especially if it’s going down in the isolation of secluded, wooded areas. Right back to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a personal favourite of mine (and so many others), and all the way up to the mostly yawn inducing Wrong Turn franchise. Most of Scarce just feels lazy. As if the writer-director pair opted to take many of the cliched elements in the sub-genre and jam them into the single plot. A lot of the writing itself is lame. There are absolutely unsettling qualities. However, dialogue such as when Ivan talks about how they’ll soon be “nothing but [his] shit” and other of his/Wade’s ramblings make the story and the its characters more laughable.
Visually, there are some moments I enjoy quite a bit. The biggest is when Ivan and Wade take the guys out in the morning to let them free in the woods, before hunting them with a rifle, and there’s this excellently eerie piece of music from the score along with a stylized, brief sequence of Wade hauling the two victims by their chains, them bloody and worn down. This was a solid, if not too short scene. A little while later once the guys are running through the forest, there are some nice shots. It’s too bad this couldn’t have extended to the rest of the sequences where everything felt overwhelmingly bland. These couple minutes actually look great and then we quickly return to the film’s laziness.
Finally, it’s the hole blown in Ivan that takes the cake for best effect. They probably blew a large portion of budget on this one gag alone, as it’s a combination of CGI and practical work. Nevertheless, it definitely works, and the hole in his torso looks genuine. A nice dose of gore in the the final ten minutes to really try and impress us. Too little too late, but a noble effort indeed.
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I can’t give this any more than 1&1/2 stars. Even then I’m not totally sure it deserves that much. Still, there are little elements in Scarce that give you enough to hold onto, if only for a little while. You certainly won’t be blown away, by anything. Not once.
At the same time, give it a chance and at least see the effects. There’s a bit of sloppy gore, some wild blood. I own it simply because  I bought it on a whim for $10 somewhere. Definitely not something I’d seek out to buy otherwise. At least there’s partly some spirit of horror alive in this flick. Underneath so much less than mediocre fare.

The Butterfly Effect’s Personal Revisionist History

The Butterfly Effect. 2004. Directed & Written by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber.
Starring Ashton Kutcher, Melora Walters, Amy Smart, Elden Henson, William Lee Scott, Jesse James, Logan Lerman, John B. Lowe, Callum Keith Rennie, Ethan Suplee, Jesse Hutch, Tara Wilson, Kevin Durand, & Eric Stoltz. BenderSpink/FilmEnging/Katalyst Films.
Rated R. 120 minutes (Director’s Cut).
Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTER
I remember first seeing The Butterfly Effect when it came out. At the time I was in film school and one of our essays required us to go see a movie currently in theatre, do an analysis and write about 1,500 words. Going in, honestly there weren’t any huge expectations. It surprised me, though, and coming out I felt heavily affected by what I’d just seen. Along with Donnie Darko that I recently reviewed, this is a film I truly dig, but one I haven’t watched in years despite having viewed it a bunch after it first released. Coming back to it now there’s still a lot to enjoy.
While I may not see it as near perfect how I did a little over ten years ago, directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber does some great stuff. The Butterfly Effect looks at the power of memory, the repercussions of events from our past that bleed into the present. Above everything else, it makes us wonder whether revisiting the past is worth it. Of course it does so in the sense of exploring its thematic material through a science fiction lens. At the same time, the core story is rooted in a deeply intense and personal drama about a young man whose life, as well as the life of anyone around him, has been altered by significant, damaging events. Not everything works and there are points in the screenplay that could’ve been tighter, but on the whole this is an exciting, at times disturbing, always interesting bit of science fiction wrapped in a thriller concerning the power of memory to affect a person, as well as the enduring effect on a person’s loved ones and relationships if memory cannot be conquered.
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There’s some disturbing content at the heart of this film. Not too long in and we discover Evan (Ashton Kutcher) was molested as a boy by his friend’s father Mr. Miller (Eric Stoltz), and this is one of the bigger actions that causes repercussions. Because even before Evan goes about changing his memories and the past there’s that knowledge that events reverberate into the future, they shape a person’s character. So later when Evan does change things, bouncing between various decisions and making mistakes, there’s a further sense of these reverberations. Bigger now. Gradually, the lives of those involved with Evan over the course of a lifetime get worse and worse. From the upper class university life to a dilapidated crack house where Kayleigh (Amy Smart) winds up, the situations only get worse.
Beyond the disturbing elements, The Butterfly Effect is emotional. The foundation is built upon the relationship between Evan and Kayleigh, which shapes the thriller portions of this film. Evan’s love for Kayleigh, his desire to change her life for the better turns the story into a heartbreaking tale of failed redemption and a story about loss. Essentially, the plot concerns his desire to be the hero; of his own life and his others. The most devastating point in the plot is where Evan tries too hard to be the hero, for everybody, and effectively puts himself in a wheelchair, his arms blown off. All to try saving both Kayleigh and Lenny (Elden Henson), stretching himself too thin. Seeing him relegated to that chair and Evan having to watch his best friend be with the girl he loves so deeply is beyond tough. Despite flaws, this story is a tough ride, but in such an excellent sense. This is what makes the movie both memorable, as well as a so remarkable.
In the end, Evan realizes there’s no escaping the past. No matter his abilities in travelling back through his memories and the past in general, something worse or undesirable always happens. Nothing can alter what has already happened, only what comes afterwards. And the more Evan tries playing hero, the worse his eventual future becomes until he’s finally backed into a corner with no more options.
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For me, one of the largest downfalls to this movie is Kutcher himself. Not only him, though. Some of the acting is just weak. At times, I do like Kutcher. When Evan goes to jail I found his portrayal of the character genuine, his fear and the apprehension, not knowing how to act in that terrifying social space. Likewise, a young Logan Lerman plays Evan as a boy and he does a fantastic job; in certain scenes he retains that innocent childlike essence necessary, in others he feels old beyond his years when Evan is travelling back through memories to try changing the past. But too many times I felt the cheesy qualities of Kutcher’s acting. A few times you can forgive. Yet there are times I couldn’t take him seriously when the plot demands it. Such as when Kayleigh gives Evan a granola bar, in the future where he has no arms, and he crushes it with his prosthetic hand – normally, this wouldn’t make me laugh at all. Kutcher makes me chuckle at this, simply because there are times he’s just not believable. So with a mixed performance like this one it’s tough to love the movie more. Aside from him, Smart gives the same type of performance. Later when Kayleigh is a prostitute, down one particular avenue to the future which Evan mangles, Smart does well with portraying this tragic side of the character. The rest of her performance is slightly bland. One moment in particular kills me: in the future where Evan has no arms he falls from his wheelchair purposefully, while on the ground people laugh at him and Kayleigh tries defending him by yelling at everyone, but Smart’s acting feels much too forced and this brief scene comes off terribly. There are some instances of good acting throughout, don’t get me wrong. Considered as a whole, the cast is all right. Enough to convey the basics and to make things emotional at the right times.
What the movie lacks in solid performances it makes up for with an interesting plot with equally interesting execution on the part of the directors. The visual style is dark, which mirrors the plot and the film’s story. Moreover, the actual atmosphere itself gets darker or lighter depending on how Evan and his actions affect the future’s outcome. So when things feel rosy and wonderful in the college lifestyle, Evan exists in a bright, colourful space. The more sinister everything becomes, the grittier each scene gets and the more shadows hang over every frame.
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No qualms giving this a 3&1/2-star rating. There are plot holes, some cheesy moments of acting, and at times there are good scenes which fall flat for various reasons. However, The Butterfly Effect is engaging because of its emotional hook, and despite missteps in acting along the way Kutcher is still able to make us care about Evan, investing ourselves in his emotional journey across the past through his shattered memories. More importantly, this is an innovative feature, as it dives hard and deep into territory we’ve seen before, but with its own interesting premise.
Also, if you can, see the Director’s Cut. I much prefer the ending to this one. The original Theatrical Cut is good enough. Although the ending doesn’t fit well enough with the vibe of the film. The Director’s Cut ends things off properly grim, yet by the same token there’s this glimmer of hope which stays in-line with the character of Evan and his desire to try and rewrite the past to positive ends. Either way, check out all four of the endings and judge for yourself. This is a nice little flick that I can always go back to now and then for an edgy thrill with heavy hints of science fiction in its bones.

Joshua Makes You Question the Nature or Nurture of Evil

Joshua. 2007. Directed by George Ratliff. Screenplay by David Gilbert & Ratliff.
Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Celia Weston, Dallas Roberts, Michael McKean, Jacob Kogan, Nancy Giles, Linda Larkin, Alex Draper, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Ezra Barnes, Jodie Markell, Rufus Collins, Haviland Morris, & Tom Bloom. ATO Pictures.
Rated 14A. 106 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Thriller

★★★★
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The creepy kid sub-genre (if that’s legitimately a thing) in horror is one that’s seen plenty of ripe material. Some of the classics dominate, such as The Omen and the lesser loved but awesome The Good Son featuring young Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood. Then there are others which aren’t as great, though still enjoyable, like Children of the Corn. What makes us so worried in general about the killer kids, the little psychopaths, young boys and girls capable of murder, manipulation, and so much more, is the idea of nature v. nurture. With any representation of evil, adult and child alike, it’s a question of whether innocence is real. If it is inherent in human beings automatically and evil becomes engrained in people throughout the course of their lives. Or if there’s no such thing as innocence, and at birth humans are part of a cosmic Russian Roulette, in which children can come out on the opposite shade of that spectrum.
Joshua examines such questions of innocence. Even after the credits start to roll and we’ve watched with dread those final moments, there are no blatant answers. It may seem like everything’s obvious. Although that’s certainly not the case if you look closely. Added to the finale and its ending there are several key moments which call into question what exactly has happened. People can say they’ve got a definitive answer, and they may offer quite a deal of evidence to that point, yet there will always be a hovering air of mystery. Considering these events, when you look back on the film as a whole you start to try piecing together various theories, moving back and forth between possibilities. Ultimately, this is a strength, as Joshua is highly likely to stick in your mind, days after seeing it, possibly longer. And after so much madness you’ll start to question whether evil really is nurtured all the time after all.
Maybe innocence is far too fleeting.
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I love the natural feeling of the relationship between Brad and Abby (Sam Rockwell & Vera Farmiga). One of the biggest things about any drama, no matter what sort of genre boundaries it crosses, is that the character need to feel real. I don’t care what sort of story you’re telling, if the characters in your screenplay don’t connect with people emotionally on some level then there’s really no hope for anything else you’re attempting to do. While this movie is absolutely a (psychological)horror-thriller its main structure is an intense family drama. The foundation of which is always going to be real, honest characters. One example is early on when Brad joins Abby in bed – he’s trying to start sex, without being obnoxious, and his wife isn’t really ready yet, but he’s kissing her ass (literally), telling her how gorgeous she is, to the point of saying he loves how her armpits smell.
When the horror-thriller elements star to kick in hard there are obvious comparisons, and maybe homages, to similar films now considered classics. For instance, just Abby’s hair alone and later her pale complexion will have most people thinking of Rosemary’s Baby. As Joshua (Jacob Kogan) further manipulates his parents he becomes reminiscent of an even more actively involved Damien Thorn.
One of the eeriest scenes comes when the dog dies. The way Joshua mimics his father begins to show us how the boy might possibly be a psychopath. We know already there’s something not quite right, but this is a spooky moment. Even Brad starts to get a peek into the personality of his son, and though he soon forgets mostly about it this is a big turning point. As an audience, we’re gradually privy to more of his creepy behaviour that leads us farther and deeper into the boy’s psychopathy.
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Rockwell is a fantastic actor. He does well with a variety of characters, and this is no different. The character of Brad is complex. He’s a very loving, understanding husband, and all at once a man with needs, both emotional and physical. Later on, he becomes a sort of vilified father near the end. So as an actor Rockwell has tons with which he can work. He’s easy to relate with watching him deteriorate, and this is probably why it’s all so effective. We feel for him all the way. Alongside him is Farmiga, another awesome talent. She is always watchable, even in movies where there’s nothing too exciting going on. Here, she’s saddled with playing a role similar to the ones played by Mia Farrow and Lee Remick, only this is a much more realistic portrayal of a woman driven to madness by pregnancy and/or motherhood. It isn’t easy to portray an honest character like this, but Farmiga gives us the good and bad of a new mother, one that’s already experienced the exact same thing not even a decade before. Having seen several women go through that new life as a mother, including the rocky beginnings, I find Farmiga’s performance to be extremely on point. And when Joshua further drives his mother into psychological ruin there are some good scenes between Farmiga and Rockwell, where they give us a devastating look at a corroding marriage.
The best scene of all is the last one in the park, after Brad finally snaps. Everything about it is incredibly well executed. Love the score that accompanies the moment, very ominous and psycho-thriller-esque. But just the way Rockwell goes mental, fighting the men around him, it’s so intensely emotional. The camera draws back, panning out and giving us this almost auditorium-like view of the confrontation. Overall, a wonderful sequence.
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This is a 4-star film that I’d put up at the top of the pantheon of creepy kid sub-genre. Of course Joshua doesn’t come along with any of the outright bloody horror many of its counterparts boast. Nonetheless, it is horrific. A psychological thriller with enough viciousness to hold the attention of most. There are good performances, however, the writing is what does most of the work. Not every creepy kid flick has much innovative about its story. What Joshua doesn’t attain in its few missteps it gains back in an overall willingness to step outside the usual expectancies of the sub-genre and it makes up by subverting those ideas, giving us something altogether creepy and slightly original. The film avoids cliche at many turns simply due to the fact it opts for a plot that doesn’t dive into the supernatural. Everything is much too real and impressively believable.
Dig in, you’ll find a treat especially if creepy kids get to you. This is one boy I won’t soon forget.

The Woodsman Tackles a Difficult Subject with Grace

The Woodsman. 2004. Directed by Nicole Kassell. Screenplay by Kassell & Steven Fechter; based on the play by Fechter.
Starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Eve, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, Michael Shannon, & Benjamin Bratt. Dash Films/Lee Daniels Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 87 minutes.
Drama

★★★★★
POSTER
Films concerning the themes of child abuse and paedophilia can either sensationalize things too much, be far too graphic, or they can simply miss the mark on saying anything worthwhile on the subject. Recently, a Danish film called For My Brother went hard at the topic, and while it was a solid film there were times it cut to the bone, hard. There’s also Asia Argento’s feature film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which wades into crazy territory, and perhaps touches a little too close to home at times for some to be completely comfortable watching.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Woodsman. On the outside what may appear as a star-laden cast, headed by the real life couple and wonderful actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, is actually on the inside a difficult and compelling work of cinema which attempts to cut through the stigma and the rhetoric concerning sex offenders, hoping to offer not a solution but a view into the world of one of these men.
And let’s get it straight – director Nicole Kassell, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Fechter whose play serves as the basis for the film, is not attempting in any way to glorify sex crimes or child abuse, nor is it working towards painting paedophiles in a sympathetic light. However, the story tries to give us a view into the world of a truly repentant man, albeit one that is confused and still unsure of what his life means, what is his true purpose, how he’s finally able to break through the barrier and become a normal person; if that is even possible. No answers are given here, though questions are asked. In the end, the main question Kassell and Fechter bring up is about the nature of redemption, if that’s attainable for men like Walter (Bacon), as well as whether society – despite its laws and guise if wanting to rehabilitate criminals – really allows these people a second chance. The answers, as I mentioned, do not come in any concrete form, and we shouldn’t expect them to either. Most of all, The Woodsman points out there are flaws in the way we do things, as a society, as concerned citizens, as personal critics, co-workers, cops, bosses, every role in between. Although, never do Kassell and Fechter let the reality of these crimes escape us, even in the film’s most empathetic/sympathetic moments. For all these things, this is an honest and raw story.
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The strength of this film is built on Bacon’s performance. This is the role which carries all of the thematic weight. Not an easy performance to undertake. Many actors would probably have an aversion to these types of characters. Again, the writing and the execution in unison do not try to humanize paedophiles. On the contrary, Walter is presented as someone with troubling issues stemming out of childhood, a man that may not necessarily be a true child molester but one whose early sexual experiences shaped his adult sexuality in a damaging way. He is not some career paedophile, yet still, he is guilty. He is culpable in full for his crime, and never does the character evade responsibility. In fact, Bacon brings out the self-hatred of Walter. The disgust he feels for himself and his thoughts is always prevalent, coming out at times to cause him difficulty. Better still, Bacon is able to present Walter with compassion that doesn’t fall into trying to make him likeable – simply, we watch his struggle, and we see how his past informs every last moment of his present. Without an actor like Bacon this character could easily feel as if it were pandering. Instead, his depth gives Walter life and in a tough movie, filled to the brim with tough ideas and characters and dialogue and themes, this sort of performance is ultra important to its success.
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Around Walter are some other interesting characters, not the least of which is Vicki (Sedgwick). Her character is just as compelling as Walter. Her own personal history with abuse plays into part of him and his experiences. In part, Vicki represents a way forward for him. Walter starts to see some of the effects, later in life, on those people that experienced sexual abuse first hand, and in a sense this offers perspective. Also, Vicki is another sense of redemption, in that he finds a normal relationship (both emotionally and sexually) with her and sees some way out of the rut in which he sits. She is a sense of possibility.
On the other side is Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def). He embodies the often hypocritical aspect of law enforcement, which at once essentially says there’s a possibility of rehabilitation (the fact we sentence people then let them free after a certain point suggests we believe this is possible as a society), and in opposition automatically (and perpetually) condemns offenders. Police are meant to remain objective, which is part of how they’re meant to emotionally stand back from the crimes and serve justice, whatever that means from case to case. Lucas does nothing except believe he’s waiting for Walter to reoffend, to sexually abuse a young girl and go back to prison, right where he sees him as belonging. Lucas is an interesting character and Mos Def does solid work with his performance, both calling to mind our own prejudices and thoughts as concerned citizens, as well as pointing out how the law is not always impartial and justice sometimes has too big of an eyeball instead of remaining blind.
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Furthermore, the side plot of Candy (Kevin Rice) is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the screenplay. While the other characters surrounding Walter allow us a window into how sex offenders rehabilitate amongst the community, family, how they manage (if they ever do) to connect with people, Candy is a perspective on self-hatred and how Walter abhors himself, his actions, his crimes. SPOILER AHEAD: for instance, when Walter tracks down Candy and beats him, for a split second you can see him punching his own face in place of Candy, showing the hate he has for himself inside. This doesn’t excuse Walter of ANYTHING. Not at all, he gets no free ride for his crimes. What it does is illustrate, in conjunction with his meeting the little girl in her red coat, how someone like Walter may actually feel remorse, despite their urges, and that SOME offenders like him genuinely want to change.
There are many tough things to swallow in The Woodsman, most significantly its overall premise. However, with the subtle performance of Bacon in the lead role and the writing of Kassell and Fechter, this film reaches its destination. It will never reach everybody, though those it does reach will be affected, in many ways. You will not be compelled to feel sorry for paedophiles. This is not the aim of this movie. Though, you will start to feel as if there are other perspectives, other views on the subject, and Bacon may even make you feel sorry for this particular character. Certainly not going to appeal to everyone, maybe a small minority of viewers with open enough minds to watch something out of their wheelhouse. The main thing I can promise is that this is not an explicit or graphic film. It is respectful, subdued. The Woodsman takes on its nearly impossible plots and main story with a grace that is not often seen with these types of movies. For that alone it deserves to be seen, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ll say this to my dying days, Bacon was robbed of a nomination at the Oscars (and all other awards) for his multi-faceted performance as Walter.

Time Travel into Youth with Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko. 2001. Directed & Written by Richard Kelly.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell, Katharine Ross, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle, Holmes Osborne, James Duval, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Seth Rogen, & Patience Cleveland. 20th Century Fox/Pandora Cinema/Flower Films/Adam Fields Productions.
Rated R. 113 minutes.
Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★★1/2
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I was born in 1985. When Richard Kelly directed and wrote Donnie Darko, I was about 15 (late birthday always puts me near the end of the year and so I was usually younger than most in my grade). When I saw it, there was an immediate odd quality that drew me in. Like many, I imagined myself an outsider, outcast, whatever word you’d like to use. But Kelly’s film spoke to my weird soul.
Donnie Darko combines a story of teen angst with a science fiction-tinged thriller, all wrapped up in a personal family drama. There’s even a horror-ish element within the plot itself, as Frank the Bunny is not simply a sci-fi-esque prophet, he is highly unsettling to look at. Delightfully horror. Set in the late ’80s, the story is quirky, but never so much that it ultimately detracts from anything. In fact, the soundtrack and some of the haircuts, the fashion are what makes it clear this is a period piece, otherwise it isn’t forced on us.
But above all else, this movie is concerned with an interesting mix that falls somewhere between a more cynical John Hughes picture and a darkly comedic science fiction-thriller.
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Often period pieces, no matter the time, can really jam those elements down a viewer’s throat. Kelly does a fine job weaving the late ’80s into his film. Without every pressuring us into a space where neon Spandex, headbands, gigantic hairdos take precedence, the movie gets across its 1988 setting. For instance, from the very beginning we keep hearing mentions of George Bush Sr., more importantly his opponent Michael Dukakis in the ’88 U.S. Presidential election, such as when Mr. Darko’s daughter insists she’s voting for the latter to his chagrin. These particular mentions are organic, they don’t feel jammed into the screenplay. Furthermore, the fact they’re so easily engrained in the fabric of the writing is not only a testament to Kelly’s abilities as a screenwriter, it’s also part of why the film, as a whole, feels fleshed out.
The writing is all around excellent. Donnie’s a solid character, as are his family. I’m always at a loss for how I’m meant to relate to characters when families onscreen feel like they’re the furthest away from a family they can possibly get. Sometimes you see these people together as supposed relations and they feel too much like a couple actors working through lines. The Darko family are fun. First, you’ve got the fact Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal play the brother-sister combo that like poking fun at one another with hilariously foul insults. Their chemistry is, obviously, natural. Better still, Rose (Mary McDonnell) and Eddie (Holmes Osborne) Darko are wonderful in the roles of Donnie’s parents. They’re interesting, they feel like a married couple and likewise feel like parents. Even if Donnie is the main focus, the whole family makes the movie and its story all the better for their inclusion.
Aside from characters, the plot is wild, as much as it is intriguing. If you pick up the Director’s Cut there’s a treasure trove of Special Features that make everything even more enjoyable. Sure, you may not like the movie because it isn’t your cup of tea. But you’ve got to admire Kelly’s work, his writing, the time and research he put into the whole thing. On the DVD (this is one movie I’ve yet to pick up on Blu ray), there’s a feature on The Philosophy of Time Travel, the book within the film supposedly written by Roberta Sparrow. It almost serves as a nice footnote to the movie, helping people bridge the gaps between the bits and pieces which may not immediately make sense. Personally, I don’t particularly find Donnie Darko confusing, on the whole. That being said, I’ve watched this so many times in the last 15 years that quite possibly I get it simply because of the sheer number of views. Who knows. However, if you do find it confusing, even in the slightest, I suggest picking up the DVD if you’re willing, and enjoyed the film despite not fully understanding it. The features will help you grasp everything, in my opinion. Again, they also give you an idea of how much work Kelly put into this movie, from writing the screenplay to its visual execution.
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What I love most is that this is a teen story, at its heart. But more than that we’ve got this great feeling of a distinction between people who are closer to the truth and those who are much further away. The teens, or some of them – particularly Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Gretchen (Jena Malone) – are obviously on the side of angst, the feeling that grown-ups don’t have it all figured out. This is usually the case in films, and in real life, too. Moreover, some of the adults in this movie are in on that. There’s Professor Monnitoff (Noah Wyle) whose indulgence of Donnie’s questions about time travel point to his better understanding of the world than the closed off, repressed adults here; also, young teacher Karen Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) is a great example, as she introduces one of the film’s themes, DESTRUCTION AS CREATION, with the Graham Greene short story “The Destructors” that concerns that very same theme. The adults are not simply clueless; no, they are mostly apathetic, and that’s almost worse.
Best of all, the character of Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze) exemplifies the entire idea that many of the adults here are clueless, oblivious to everything significant about life – when we come to find out about Cunningham, through another act of destruction (creating a better path to truth), it’s easy to see how his preaching about fear is all a cover. Epitomized in Cunningham is the concept of the hidden truth, which Donnie comes to help uncover throughout the course of the plot. Often films that are going for the idea that teenagers are somehow more enlightened in their youth (not all; a small portion) tend to never really feel that way, rather they simply have all the angst and nothing else. Donnie Darko contains every last bit of that angst. Yet more than that with its science fiction leanings Kelly gives this story a legitimate feeling of that youthful wisdom lurking amongst the apathy of suburbia.
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The central performance from Gyllenhaal is affecting, in many ways. He plays the teen angst so well, seeing him with his therapist in those scenes is often both engaging and also tense in its own right. Donnie comes off as an emotional young man. He represents so many teens in a perfect sense – part of him is dark, the other part calling out to the light. In addition, he feels real. He isn’t a caricature, but instead is a genuine depiction of a teenager, filled with confusing and rage and misguided emotion, and so much more. Gyllenhaal truly burst forth with this role. His performance is what keeps us so rooted in the eccentric story. If it weren’t for him, this film might not come off as memorable as it does.
Some movies I loved at 15 now don’t look so great. Donnie Darko is not one of those. Like cheese (if you’re into it), this is one experience which only gets better with age. Writing this in 2016, I expected maybe some elements might feel pretentious. They don’t, though. I’ve seen this movie so much, but haven’t watched it in about 7 years. So coming back to it, I wasn’t sure if Kelly’s film might have felt so amazingly effective simply because I was younger, I had those rosy eyes of a still 20-something man. Watching this again tonight, I realize it has nothing to do with me. This film is timeless. If I watch it again, in another 20 years, I expect to feel no different about it. Maybe with more decades behind me the themes, the plot, everything may make even more sense to me then.
Nevertheless, right now I can’t stop loving it. Donnie Darko is a hugely interesting piece of work, Richard Kelly still doesn’t get enough credit and his later projects were only more misunderstood than this one. Just don’t discount this one as muddled, as a completely teen movie, or anything like that. This has so much worth inside. Let it wash over you. Some films, as this one is, are an experience rather than merely a bunch of moving images telling a story.