Sunday, September 7, 2008
Out of the Past
One of the most refreshing aspects of the taut, unpretentious French thriller Tell No One (Ne les dis a personne) is that all of the characters are good at their jobs. Alexandre Beck, the protagonist suspected of murdering his wife eight years earlier, is a skilled pediatrician; the detectives assigned to the case by turns piece together the evidence that points to Beck (the discovery of two bodies in the woods) and uncover the clues that suggest his innocence (would a doctor really tape a gun behind his desk?); the mix of social climbers and vicious scumbags also on Beck's tail tap into his email, wreak havoc with his life and seemingly monitor his every move; even his immediate family, usually naive naysayers in this type of picture, function as both a hindrance and an aid. Granted, maybe the cops pursuing Beck should have paused before running past the trash container he hides in, but that's a rare misstep.
The man behind the camera, Guillame Canet, is also a highly adept fellow, building an exciting forward momentum while pausing in unexpected places for surprising touches. I've heard the lazy adjective "Hitchcockian" applied to Tell No One, but sequences like the aforementioned chase through the Paris beltway more accurately evoke the work of Paul Greengrass from the Bourne franchise. Adapting an American mystery novel (by Harlan Coben), Canet is clearly trying his damndest to make a crossover commercial success with a muscular-visceral style, even padding the soundtrack (at times questionably) to popular Anglo-American music. Yet the film's emotional gravity -- anchored by Francois Cluzet in a sturdy leading-man performance -- is reminiscent of Kieslowski and other European directors. Also telling is the casual depiction of the marriage between Beck's sister (Marina Hands from Lady Chatterley) and his female friend (Kristin Scott Thomas, whose weathered smarts are put to good use here), which appears headed toward an unfortunate cliche only to neatly sidestep it.
This is true of much of the film; even a climactic passage featuring the hoary device of a Talking Villain subverts our expectations. I also liked how odd or apparently irrelevant details, such as the lowlife (Gilles Lellouche) whose hemophilic son Dr. Beck provides treatment for early on, or Beck's hilariously ugly pet dog, come to figure in the plot in a way that attention-deficit American thrillers can't seem to accomplish anymore. Tell No One gets a little too convoluted in its final act -- my head is still spinning from the final barrage of revelations -- but at least it expands rather than retracts, and closes on a note of genuine feeling.
Martin McDonagh's black-comedy-thriller In Bruges (now on DVD) has heart too, even if it's too often buried behind superficial artifice. Fourteen years after Pulp Fiction, the philosophical hitman has become a tired archetype, and this movie features two of them, Brits Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), who are holed up in a hotel in Bruges, Belgium after Ray accidentally kills a young boy during a previous assignment. Despondent and suicidal, Ray hits the streets and finds trouble while seeking salvation, the possibility of both manifesting themselves through a comely Belgian woman (Clemence Poesy) who likes to rob tourists with her scumbag sort-of boyfriend, and a drug-addled dwarf actor making a movie on location. (I'm embarrassed to say that I thought the actor, actually Jordan Prentice, was Peter Dinklage from The Station Agent and Living in Oblivion, and I spent the entire running time wondering if he had undergone plastic surgery.) Meanwhile, the older Ken sees the sights and stonewalls the directive telephoned by their employer Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to kill Ray.
I didn't need to know McDonagh's biography beforehand to guess that In Bruges was the work of a playwright. (The Beauty Queen of Leenane among other efforts). The early scenes in particular bristle with pungent dialogue, yet also have a staginess that the locale, for all its medieval appeal, can't quite open up. (Even a typically fine score by Carter Burwell makes the picture only slightly more cinematic.) More problematic are the uneven rhythms between tragedy and farce: Ken's paternal concern for Ray is truly touching; Ray's oddball obsession with "midgets" goes over like a lead balloon. The rap on Quentin Tarantino is that his films are recycled from earlier movies, but in actuality his perennial theme -- the quest for spiritual transcendence in an indifferent universe -- is grounded in a more real, identifiable world than McDonagh's journey from the stage.
The jarring qualities of In Bruges are reflected by the two leads. Farrell, who has never done a thing for me in any movie, acts mainly with his eyebrows; while Gleeson effortlessly provides an emotional center, as he has in so many films. In Bruges only completely comes to life with the appearance of Fiennes's Harry, whose arrival in the final act energizes the movie in a manner similar to William Hurt's crackpot turn in the closing passage of A History of Violence. Harry, a vicious thug with weird scruples, comes to Bruges to finish the job; and Fiennes, who seems to be morphing into Ben Kingsley, uses his harsh voice and gleaming eyes to jolting effect. His scenes with Gleeson, by far the best in the picture, form a wonderfully prickly tango between a pair of veteran actors. Like much of the film, the darkly comic logic of McDonagh's climax (with the final shot cribbed from Carlito's Way) doesn't entirely work, but it certainly holds your attention. With so much going on, it's hard for a viewer to get his bearings. I'm not sure whether or not In Bruges is a good movie, but I know I want to see it again.