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.


Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Great stuff. Off the top of my head, I'd say "Tell No One" and "In Bruges" are both in my top five films of the year so far...or at least right on the bubble.

Your observation about the professional proficiency in "Tell No One" is astute. And, yes, the terrific chase scenes evoke the Bourne movies in their lack of CGI. But they're minimalist compared to the Bourne films, and that's what I loved about them. I mean, seriously: how many times have we seen the run-across-traffic escape? Has it ever worked this well? Opposite all the big CGI spectacles this summer, "Tell No One" served as a reminder of how unspecial special effects often are in terms of their dramatic effect.

As for the score, I found it curious, too. Especially the most popular song -- which I don't want to spoil for anyone reading. Though not long after I wrinkled my nose at its inclusion, the plot made it work. That little "Ah!" realization went down as one of my favorite little moments in moviegoing so far this year.

Alas, the end of the film holds it back. For so long it's as smart as the characters, and then it boils down into an overly detailed capper that's disappointing not for its convolution so much as its revelation (the old 'let me tell you how it all went down' routine so often used in shows like "Murder, She Wrote"). It deserves a better conclusion.

"In Bruges" I reviewed, so I'll be quick about it. You nail it when you say that Farrell acts with his eyebrows (wish I'd used that line). But Gleason is so genuine to me, pop archetype though his character might be, that he makes up for Farrell. I've seen it twice now. Held up on second viewing.

Craig said...

I enjoyed your review of In Bruges. While you liked it more than me, I concur that Gleeson and Fiennes's scenes in the final half-hour make it worth seeing. (What I love about the character of Harry, vile though he is, is that he may be right.) A real actors' seminar going on there. Maybe the best performance out of Fiennes since Schindler's List, and a hell of a lot funnier.

(Oh, and I think I stole the eyebrows line from Charles Taylor, whom I believe once wrote something of the sort about Donald Moffat.)

I really liked Tell No One right up to the too-much-information sequence you talked about. It seemed deliberate in a way though, and so over-the-top I laughed. It's been a pretty weak year for movies so far, but I'd probably rate this one right behind The Bank Job. (Fun entertainments but thin stuff compared to last year; hopefully the Fall season picks up.)