Reviewed by Nick Nunziata
A great deal of people view director Joel Schumacher as the spawn of Satan himself. Charged with taking the Batman franchise from a license to print money to an overblown fashion show, the former art designer chose to go down a darker path with his latest film.
Directed by Joel (Falling Down, Batman & Robin) Schumacher
Starring Nicolas (Face/Off, City of Angels) Cage, Joaquin (U-Turn, Clay Pigeons) Phoenix, Peter (Armageddon, The Big Lebowski) Stormare, James (True Romance, A Civil Action) Gandolfini, Catherine (Out of Sight, Your Friends and Neighbors) Keener, Anthony (Silence of the Lambs, Deep Rising) Heald
From the writer of Seven and The Game comes another dark, disturbing screenplay. Instead of being helmed by someone who has a knack for that kind of film (David Fincher, Sam Raimi), it lies in the hands of Joel Schumacher, a man known for his visual sense but equally notorious for preferring that visual aesthetic over storyline. Here he employs a greasy, grimy look to the film not unlike the recent film Payback which helps add atmosphere but not necessarily enough to sustain a story like this one. While hyped as an unsettling, dark thriller it’s more like a thriller that tries to be unsettling and dark.
Nic Cage is summoned by a wealthy widow to peruse a film she found in her husband’s safe after his death. The film appears to be a “snuff” film (a film where someone is killed on camera) of a young girl. To get to the root of it, and comfort her that her husband was clean she pays him (a private detective) to track down the young lady who “dies” in the film and get the root of this whole thing. This of course sends him on a cross country descent into the sleazy universe of porn. Through his journeys he bumps into the few folks who will go along this twisted tale with him (and us). Max California (Phoenix, saving the picture with his sly, energetic performance), Dino Velvet (Stormare, creepy as always) and a couple of other seedy types (Heald, Gandolfini, and Chris Bauer who plays a man named…Machine) give the film some characters that make the film worth watching, and at times it nearly achieves the much hyped “disturbing” feel that writer Walker is known for. Unfortunately, it descends into familiar ground and becomes a sort of revenge flick. The film has going for it a topic which hasn’t seen a lot of attention in mainstream film and it makes attempts to inject the intensity and originality a film like this needs.
The film’s first half is almost monotonic, with meticulous time spent establishing the process for finding the culprits. Cage is very wooden for the first half, and his wife (Keener, who was so easy to hate in YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS is also very stiff) isn’t exactly the warmest presence. I’m not sure if the lack of spark was intentional, but overall it isn’t convincing that these two people give a damn about each other. Also, as Cage becomes more involved in the case (in Los Angeles where he teams up with porn shop employee Phoenix) the more of a distraction the “family at home” subplot becomes. It’s obvious the filmmaker’s goal was to show this family man’s metamorphosis into something much darker and hollow. They fail. Fortunately, the film isn’t a total waste thanks to a much improved Cage over the second half. As he gets closer to the guts of the case, some uncomfortable events take place which make the story move at a better pace. When he gets his sidekick (Phoenix) and starts to explore the underground porn industry you feel almost like a spectator, and while the thrust of this segment of the film is supposed to be tied in with Max’s line “The Devil don’t change, the Devil changes you”, because as they become intertwined with the horrible perverse things of this new world, they become soiled and scarred as a result. What should have been the film’s centerpiece takes place around 3/4ths of the way through. A confrontation between all parties. There is a true feeling of danger in this scene, but it’s all too tidily wrapped up, and then the film goes on for another half hour. If you see the film, remember what I’m telling you and wonder how much better the film would have been if the scene “on the set of the custom movie set” had been longer and been the climax.
The film (like this review) goes all over the place and ultimately leaves you wanting more. I’m not sure if it’s the work of Schumacher, the writer, or a combination. Cage redeems himself in the second half, and actually has some good “actor” moments later in the film. Keener is an anchor as his wife. She’s a good actress, but someone more likable and colorful should have played her part, and the scene where she accosts her husband at their “rendezvous” is absolutely unjustified. It’s almost as if they cut out a bunch of tension between the two and then all we see is the confrontation and we’re left wondering “what crapped in her pancakes?”. Stormare is good as Dino Velvet, the avant garde porn baron, and I can only hope we’ll see him playing someone normal after his turns as the wood chipper guy from FARGO, the nihilist from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and the cosmonaut from ARMAGEDDON. James Gandolfini, recently enjoying success on his HBO show THE SOPRANO’S is also good, and not in the least bit likable. Phoenix is absolutely great in the film. He’s funny, sharp, and very convincing (is that a good thing) as Max California. He adds a point to the film on his own.
6.2 out of 10