Saturday 11 December 2010

As Good as Dead (2010)

Director: Jonathan Mossek
Stars: Andie MacDowell and Cary Elwes
Debut director Jonathan Mossek obviously has an interest in extremism, as his few credits are on documentaries about Adolf Eichmann and the Black Panthers, and this picture shows its colours quickly. 'In America today it's OK to be a demon,' says Brian Cox in the superbly shot opening scene. He's in priestly garb, preaching his sermon to a flock that seems full of downhome people like Andie MacDowell. It's when the camera pans back that we realise that it's also full of more sinister types that fit the Aryan symbology that plasters the walls around the cross. As the Hon Revd James Kalahan talks about how it only takes one match to burn a forest, one man takes it upon himself to climb onto a bus with a pump action shotgun. Nothing happens yet but there's plenty of implication hanging around. Given the title of the film we can't help but wonder about what sort of scary ride Mossek is going to take us on, but we know it can't be a pleasant one.

The central character is Ethan Belfrage, a New York photojournalist played by Cary Elwes, who for some reason remains one of those faces I never seem to remember, however many films I see him in. I don't just know him from The Princess Bride, I saw him as recently as The Alphabet Killers in 2008, but somehow I still see him for the first time every time. Here he's in for a rough experience, not that he's been having it too great thus far. He's separated and shares custody of his daughter. He's ten weeks into an attempt to quit smoking but he's still on nicotine patches. He's also being pressured to leave his apartment by Seth Rosen, his landlord, who wants to redevelop the entire place, and he assumes that the pressure that starts being brought to bear is at Rosen's instigation. People attempt to knock his door down in the middle of the night. Others look threatening at the dog walking park. Eventually he finds two men hiding in his apartment.

And here things get nasty, mostly courtesy of Frank Whaley who plays an emotionless sociopath called Aaron. He's one of the two men, the elder of the two, the one with an SS tattoo on his neck and a reluctance to even touch the lesser races, even if it's to get his change from a store clerk. Whaley has something of a Gary Oldman vibe, but without any of the overt flair. The only emotion he shows for the longest time is a mild impatience. The other man is Jake, far younger and far less dedicated to nihilistic violence but still with the determination to do whatever it takes to get a job done. The catch is that Ethan has no idea what they want, as they proceed to beat him up, kill his dog and trash the place while playing Amazing Grace on his piano. They leave him chained inside a fridge with his hands tied together with duct tape; and he escapes only to find a noose strung up waiting for him and himself soon on tiptoes inside that noose.
The initial story is reasonably straightforward and is explained when Andie MacDowall shows up. She's Helen, the Revd Kalahan's wife, and she's looking for vengeance for her husband's murder in 1999 by men in balaclavas who ambushed their car, shot him dead and burned the vehicle with her in it. She survived, with third degree burns over half her body, and she still walks with a crutch. Her young son Jake was pulled to safety and grew up into the young man torturing Ethan. 'An eye for an eye, a life for a life,' he says, as he's pressed for an explanation. Helen tells him the rest while his head is in the noose because she believes he did the deed, fingered by Peter, the last guy they tracked down and tortured to death. The fact that they don't just kill Ethan outright is because she wants him to name the third man involved. They don't hold back either, even stooping to hauling up Amy from downstairs to inject with drugs in front of him.

There are layers here, far beyond a basic revenge story. After all, if he did it, they already have him exactly where they want him; but if he didn't do it, there has to be something else going on. There are a few twists, which are revealed subtly at the appropriate points in time, changing our expectations of the story to a large degree. This subtlety is one of the great successes here, the brutality being rather clinical and the gore surprisingly minimised. Sure, Aaron slices open one of Ethan's eyelids while calmly asking Jake to bring him a caffeine free ice latte, but it doesn't feel remotely like a deleted scene from Reservoir Dogs. This story is all about characters and their motivations, rather than special effects. There's much that could be debated even about the least of the characters, like the pair of cops who visit Ethan or the young lady who watches his daughter be forced back into his building in something that might be kidnapping or might not.
The twists are strong because they don't just slap us round the face with a Shayamalan gesture that breaks a second viewing because now we know what it's all about, they make us reevaluate what we saw and add progressive layers of depth. As we learn about these characters, we come to conclusions about them, not just from emotional response but through confession and fact. Instead of turning everything on its head by explaining how X and Y, these revelations prompt us to reevaluate our own responses. The morality in this film is far from a black and white thing. It isn't about bad people doing bad things for good reasons, all three judgemental adjectives there being played with throughout. It's like a game of 'where would you draw the line', but one where you keep getting asked that question with other background to flavour your answer. The real key to the story may be in a photograph at the end of the film but it could easily be taken a number of ways and I'm still not 100% sure of all the motivations. Maybe it doesn't matter.

There's a hint in the credits through a possible origin to Ethan's surname, but that may be taking subtlety to an extreme. Another oddity in the credits is that Nicole Ansari, who co-produced and took the role of Ethan's wife Kate, is married in real life to Brian Cox, who in the picture plays the man Ethan is accused of murdering. Presumably that's how they landed him for the movie: Cox is truly one of the most underrated actors working today, being the best screen Hannibal Lecktor merely one of his achievements. He's good here but he has little screen time and is not the focal point; others have more intense roles to play. Elwes is excellent as the most complex character, MacDowell decent as the one with the most inherent irony to flesh out. Matt Dallas is capable as Jake, though he's outshone by those around him, especially Frank Whaley, who plays Aaron with surprising realism instead of stylistic flair, befitting a solid character based meditation on revenge.

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