Whenever I tell a certain kind of movie buff that Unknown is pretty good, they immediately want to know how it compares to Taken, that Liam-Neeson-as-killing-machine movie that made serious bank in the U.S. in 2009 despite having sat on the shelf for ages as bootleg copies proliferated on the Internet. The answer is that for all their similarities — the old-school action vibe, the European settings, the generally focused efficiency of narrative — they are also quite different.
Throughout most of film history, it would have been inconceivable to mount a 95-minute mainstream film that took place entirely within the confines of a wooden coffin buried several feet underground. All hail the cell phone – with one of those gadgets helpfully stashed near his person, Ryan Reynolds is a one-man suspense movie. In Buried, an English-language film from Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes and writer Chris Sparling, he plays Paul Conroy, an American contractor who drove supply trucks across the Iraq desert until his convoy was ambushed by insurgents. He wakes up in a pine box – a fairly roomy one, actually – equipped with said phone and a few temperamental sources of light.
The Ghost Writer opens, appropriately enough given the film’s generally menacing tone, with the death of a ferry passenger. The man’s absence is discovered through the presence of an empty BMW on deck after all the passengers disembark. His body, bloated with liquor and decay, washes up on the beach. Did the poor bastard simply get soused and totter off a slippery deck? In a Roman Polanski movie? Not bloody likely.
More of an exercise in narrative gamesmanship than an actual thriller, A Perfect Getaway pretty much douses its first half’s methodical build-up of suspense with its second half’s bucket of contrivance. That’s not to say it isn’t a lot of fun — it is, with a sly sense of humor and sharp dialogue that makes clever, reflexive reference to the characters’ presence in a comic whodunit. (“He’s really hard to kill,” declares one, doting lovingly on her boyfriend, who may or may not be half of a couples serial-killing team.)
The Hurt Locker opens in medias res, depicting a trio of soldiers working on the streets of Iraq. The movie doesn’t stop to explain what they’re up to or put their actions in context. The audience is left to infer the circumstance, but it’s not hard to imagine the scenario. Judging from the cutting and the jumpy handheld camera style, we’re looking at a tense situation. That robot rolling around by remote control, poking at a pile of refuse, is probably looking for a bomb. And when the robot breaks down and one of the men starts suiting up like Sigourney Weaver in the last scene of Alien, it’s a sure bet he’s about to play a game of red-wire/black-wire with a scary chunk of explosives. The tension is heightened, actually, by the fact that the movie has just begun. These characters are interchangeable and, because the movie has yet to present us with a formal protagonist, potentially expendable. That’s how director Kathryn Bigelow gets way ahead of her audience in this film’s very first sequence. Barely five minutes into her movie and already I was cowering in my theater seat, terrified that something was about to blow.
On reflection: this review may contain SPOILERS. Proceed at your own risk.
Director and co-writer Brad Anderson has crafted a Hitchcockian nailbiter about the mystery of human intentions set on an old-fashioned train speeding across the Siberian wilderness. Emily Mortimer stars as Jessie, an American woman traveling with her hayseed husband Roy (Woody Harrelson) from Beijing to Moscow. Along the way, they share a compartment with another young couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (raccoon-eyed Kate Mara), who may have something to hide. Anderson may be a little too reliant on blatant misdirection to build suspense, but he does know how to tighten the screws on his characters, raising the stakes as the film moves methodically toward its climax. The best thing in the film is Mortimer’s terrific performance in a rare leading role — the director deserves lots of credit for singling out her winning combination of smarts, soulfulness and, as the film wears on, desperation. Harrelson is even more gentle and relaxed than usual, and Noriega smolders amiably in his role as the charming stranger. Some of the photography is lovely, although Lithuania stands in for the forested Russian landscape. The third act is a bit of a let-down, but otherwise this is tense and absorbing filmmaking. B