Tag: Thrillers

The Usual Suspects (1995)

The immortal gang in legendary twist thriller The Usual Suspects

Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: Stephen Baldwin (Michael McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Benicio del Toro (Fred Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Todd Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Roger “Verbal” Kint), Chazz Palminteri (Agent Dave Kujan), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), Suzy Amis (Edey Finneran), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer), Dan Hedaya (Sergeant Jeff Rabin)

SPOILERS: If you have been living in a cave since 1995, don’t read on as I discuss the twist at great length…

“Convince me”. That’s what Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) says as he begins his interrogation of limping, low-time crook “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). That’s certainly what Kint does – and it’s what the whole film is aiming to do in this, the most famous confidence trick in movies. The Usual Suspects is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon films where everything comes together perfectly. It’s also a sleight-of-hand movie that remains hugely engaging and entertaining even when (as surely most people now do!) you know exactly what the magician has up his sleeve. Its solid gold entertainment factor even survives today, despite the slightly queasy presence of both Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer in its credits.

Told in flashback, the film follows the coming together of a bunch of regular criminals, pulled in for a line-up and deciding to team up. Along with Verbal, the others include McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benecio del Toro), Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and ex-cop turned criminal Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). After a successful series of heists, the gang are conscripted by suspicious lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) to take on a dangerous hijacking job for shadowy – possibly legendary – master criminal Keyser Soze, the bogeyman of the criminal classes. We know the job will go wrong – after all Verbal is banged up telling the whole story, the only survivor of the job – but how? And who is the shadowy Soze – or is he even real at all?

The Usual Suspects takes what you know about movies and then works double time to use it against you. With a structure inspired by classic noir crime films from the 1940s – the whole operation has a touch of The Asphalt Jungle while the interrogation has more than a hint of Double Indemnity – mixed in with a lot of Rashomon, it’s a movie that has you primed so much for a reveal and a twist that it skilfully misdirects you into expecting the wrong thing. Because how could you guess that perhaps the whole movie is a spun-out-of-the-moment invention by Verbal, and that possibly almost nothing we see during the course of its run time even happened. 

But how can we guess? From the very first scenes with Kujan and Verbal, Kujan is shot dominating the frame, always taller, always filling the screen. Verbal is sitting, meek, trapped by the frame, the camera frequently looking down at him. Every shot subliminally tells us that he is weak. The story has to be dragged out of him, with the investigation outside of the room forcing Verbal to expand on issues he doesn’t want to touch on. Like Kujan we invest in what we are finding out, because it looks like Verbal doesn’t want to tell it to us. That’s how they get you.

Because Verbal, in his story, is sprinkling in just the twist that Dave (and the audience) is probably expecting – that Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton, the guy who claimed to have gone good, who just wanted out, was bad the whole time and was the criminal mastermind this whole time. Christopher McQuarrie’s ingenious script primes us for this: Dave Kujan is casting doubt on Keaton’s “death” right from the start, and as the audience surrogate figure we want to be as smart as he is. So what does it matter that we ”see” Keaton shot in the opening sequence of the film? Surely that was an illusion, and we’re as clever as Kujan in seeing through it.

The film even gives us a brilliantly assembled “reveal” series of edited flashbacks, in which every small moment and hint that has existed in the film is replayed for us (John Ottman’s editing is flawless here – and he should also have credit for composing the film’s hauntingly classical score) to convince us, beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yup, poor simple Verbal was taken in all the time by dastardly Keaton, the guy who looks like a film star. Only of course it’s bollocks. That charred corpse that Singer jump cuts to at the start of the film as police investigate the boat massacre is indeed Keaton. And the clever twist we thought we were working out, turns out to be a mass distraction laid out for us by Verbal and the film.

So we get a second brilliantly edited reveal sequence as it hits Kujan while he studies that most famous notice board in film, that everything he thought he had worked out had been spun out of hints and clues off the board – from asides and anecdotes to entire locations and characters. And Kevin Spacey limps and then walks away, shrugging off the skin of timid, weak Verbal to transform into the chillingly amoral Soze. It’s a trick that worked especially well when Spacey was an almost unknown actor at the time (today it’s less of a surprise to find out that Spacey could be a creep). There is possibly no better reveal in Hollywood.

But the film continues to entertain even when you know it because Singer’s film is stuffed with richly layered characters, scintillating scenes and some rich and spicy dialogue from McQuarrie. It’s a brilliant combination and provides every scene with a clear and electric dynamism that makes it impossible to tear your eyes away. There are some truly striking scenes – not least the iconic line-up scene – and the film carries an improvisational energy (that line-up scene is a magic use of outtakes, as the actors couldn’t keep a straight face during the sequence).

Part of the magic of it comes from the brilliant clash of a group of vastly different actors bouncing off each other: the self-consciously method Baldwin, the edgy energy of Pollack, the chilly technique of Spacey and the classically trained professionalism of Byrne, who pulls off with aplomb a difficult job of playing a decoy protagonist and antagonist in one. And that’s not mentioning the wild card of Del Toro who, working out his character was a one-note plot device, throws in an eccentric chic and impenetrable mumbling accent that is part affectation (the sort of thing that made the actor more trying later in his career) and part jaw-dropping show of confidence. And backing them up is a collection of actors as eccentric as Palminteri channelling Law and Order with a smile and Postlethwaite as a sinister limey lawyer with an accent that sounds like it hails from the Raj.

Singer’s direction is flawlessly confident, creating a rich tapestry that you could lazily call Tarantinoesque, but actually reminds you of John Huston in its carefully framed mise-en-scene. It’s a very classical movie in its way, that loves clever wipes, slow build ups, brilliantly edited and surprisingly low key in much of its framing and shooting. Everything is perfectly placed to help build up the illusion. Singer never touched these heights of confidence and control again. It’s also superbly edited throughout by John Ottman, each beat landing perfectly, each transition perfectly judged. It wouldn’t seem out of pace to see Cagney playing Kint (with Bogart surely as Keaton). 

The devilish trickiness of the plot is kept largely under wraps until late on – Soze isn’t even mentioned until nearly halfway through the film – and the film’s confident misdirection suggests this might just be the gang aiming too high and getting burned rather than a shadowy mastermind manipulating it all. It’s a brilliantly judged change of pace, and all part of the impish delight of the film. It’s a clever game, but has more than enough force and invention in its story telling to keep you gripped time and time again. McQuarrie and Spacey won Oscars – and the film hinges so much on Spacey’s ability to both tell an anecdote and also not push his acting lame – and the film lives on forever in the memory as one of the finest twists. But it does so because the twist grows so organically from the film, and the film’s delight in tricking you is completely infectious.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro embodies dangerous loners everywhere in Taxi Driver

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Robert De Niro (Travis Bickle), Jodie Foster (Iris), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Albert Brooks (Tom), Harvey Keitel (Sport/Matthew), Leonard Harris (Charles Palantine), Peter Boyle (Wizard), Harry Northup (Doughboy), Steven Prince (Easy Andy), Martin Scorsese (Passenger)

A grungy taxi ploughs through the neon-lit back alleys of New York, the glow of stop signs and tail lights washing the car in a hellish red glare. Inside that taxi, the interior monologue of its driver tips ever closer towards paranoia and fantasy. It’s no surprise that something is going to give. Martin Scorsese’s influential Taxi Driver is the definitive exploration of fractured psyches, the key text in film for exploring how isolation, loneliness and an inability to connect with people can tip someone into being a danger to others.

Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is our taxi driver, an honourably discharged Vietnam vet who can’t sleep so works the night shifts. He’s seemingly quiet, shy, self-contained but this hides a desperation to connect with the world, a horror at what he sees around him that he can’t understand, a paranoid disgust at the crime and dirt he feels infect the street and a desire to be someone or do something. His failure to understand to or relate to the world on any level will eventually lead to a gradual collapse as Bickle determines that he must lash out at something, must attack something, to make himself a place in the world.

Taxi Driver is such a brilliant analysis of disaffection and confusion at the world, such an insightful understanding of how feeling separate and locked out from events around them can make a person feel they must act to make their mark, that it profoundly influenced the motivations of Ronald Reagan’s would-be-assassin John Hinckley Jnr in 1981. The film was even screened for the jury as part of Hinckley’s (successful) defence that he acted due to insanity (Hinckley claimed he was trying to impress Jodie Foster). Tragic as that is, it speaks something to the power of the film and its acute understanding (but not excuse) for lonely, fractured, potentially violent souls like Hinckley.

Scorsese’s direction is pitch-perfect. The film uses a series of tightly held shots – and some go on for a very long time, staring at trivial events (such as the shot of an empty corridor while we hear Bickle being rejected on the phone by his stalking target Betsy) – or stately intercutting between actors that brilliantly serve to establish both Bickle’s isolation and his lack of connection. This is intermixed with tighter editing that captures Bickle’s undirected fury and paranoia towards the real world, presented as he drives as a concussive collection of sounds and images that seem to hammer down on the taxi, combined with Bernard Herrmann’s superb classically tense score, lyrical but haunting. 

Every scene Scorsese constructs is designed to show Bickle’s isolation, his weakness and continual succumbing to fantasy and false perspectives. His internal monologue has a monotone fluency to it, but talking to people he’s tongue tied, clumsy or prone to tip into the rantings of a crazy man. Slow motion camera tracks show Bickle moving through crowds like an alien, unable to comprehend or understand what he is seeing, later prowling the frame like a misguided hunter. New York is a hellish underworld – although you are certain we are seeing it largely as Bickle sees it, every scene filtered through his disturbed POV (Michael Chapman’s photography by the way is faultless). 

It works so well because De Niro himself is so restrained, and at first feels rather sweet, even handsome, like someone who you want to look after or feel sorry for – a million miles from the mohawked gun totter he will become by the film’s end. He’s quiet, shy and desperate for friends. He can manage bursts of seeming like a compelling person – his fooling of Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy into a date is a tribute to his ability in short bursts to appear charmingly eccentric. The date of course flounders on his inability to understand human norms (buys her a record she says she has, takes her to a porn film, points out he has a taxi when she tries to get into one to leave), and his response to it is of course to get angry and make a scene, to blame the other person for his own failings.

De Niro immersed himself in the dark psyche of this man, and never loses touch of the gentleness and vulnerability that underpin his violent actions. Bickle talks the talk often of a crazy person, but by his own lights he’s a well-meaning man. It’s just that his well-meaning actions involve multiple murders, and it’s only by a twist of fate that he guns down a house full of pimps and gangsters rather than putting a bullet through a Presidential candidate.

And that’s the scary thing about the film: Bickle is strangely sympathetic, for all his obvious psychosis. Who hasn’t felt alone and lost in the world? Who hasn’t felt scared by events around them or dangers unknown? Who hasn’t wondered “why don’t people like me”? We just deal with it a lot better than Bickle and his messianic sense of mission that he develops.

Bickle channels what human emotions he can muster or understand into ciphers he barely knows. These people become totems, or stalking targets, who he becomes persuaded must be “saved”. With Cybil Shepherd’s Betsy, the delusion is clear: here is a confident, career woman, independent and smart, for whom Bickle can feel an attraction but clearly no understanding at all beyond her being an object he cannot have. The awkwardness and later stunningly poor judgement and reactions he shows when around her mark him immediately as a weirdo and danger to others.

But the film’s smarts – and it has a terrific script by Paul Schrader, whose understanding of dark psyches was never better captured than here – is that these fixations have a totally different impact when targeted on a child prostitute. Suddenly, Bickle’s unwanted attentions have the air of righteousness, even though intellectually he makes no distinction between either Betsy or Jodie Foster’s Iris (a performance of staggering emotional maturity from an actress barely 12 at the time). For all Iris is clearly a victim of society and abuse (in a way Betsy isn’t), for Bickle she’s pretty much the same, someone he must ‘rescue’ – and from her pimp Sport (a disturbingly fey and incestuous turn from Harvey Keitel).

So Bickle takes up the guns, and eventually does what we all wish we could do sometimes. Because who hasn’t stood in front of the mirror and dreamed about saying “you talkin’ to me” to our enemies – the difference being most of us don’t fantasise about blowing them away, let alone actually go on to do it. De Niro’s brilliance is the chilling emptiness behind the exterior, the way he captures universal fears and doubts but shows us a character who has no personality of his own but only collects titbits from those around him (like his would-be murderous passenger – played by Scorsese himself – who eagerly talks about how he wishes he could murder his cheating wife).

So the violence comes – and it is horrific – as Bickle shoots up a lowlife prostitute den with sickening graphicness (nothing this violent had really been seen before). But it’s only fate that has turned him away from his real target, Senator Palatine (George Lucas must have had this film in the back of his mind when naming his Evil Emperor!), reverting to his secondary target and killing a group of people far more acceptable to Joe Public to be wasted.

Scorsese’s genius final epilogue asks us questions about truth but also perceptions. The camera takes on a “God’s view” POV overhead shot as Bickle’s slaughter ends (and De Niro’s jerky, terminator like physicality here is stupendous), tracking back through the house. Is this his soul leaving a dying body? But then we flash forward and there is Bickle in the taxi again, hailed as a hero by society for rescuing the girl – the same society that would have condemned him as psychopath if he had taken his first target. He even gets a sympathetic conversation with Betsy.

But he hasn’t changed. And the world hasn’t changed. And Bickle may be a hero now but the same dark impulses still ride within him – and they will, the film suggests, lead him to kill again. Scorsese’s film is a masterpiece of alienation and disaffection, a brilliant analysis of what makes a killer kill – and how vagaries of fate can see us miss the signs – with a wonderful script and a superb performance from De Niro, a landmark turn that manages to tap into such existential fears we all have on our place in the world that we completely miss we are starting to relate to a psychopath. Dark and brilliant, a landmark.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Forest Whitaker dominates as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Cast: Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin), James McAvoy (Nicholas Garrigan), Kerry Washington (Kay Amin), Gillian Anderson (Sarah Merrit), Simon McBurney (Stone), David Oyelowo (Dr Junju)

Forest Whitaker won every award going for his performance as Idi Amin. A film can perhaps only begin to scratch the surface of what a megalomaniac nutjob Amin was, and the depths of his depravity and corruption. But The Last King of Scotland is perhaps less focused on that, and more on the pull that people as charismatically self-absorbed and larger-than-life like Amin can have on the weak-minded and, on a wider basis, how this can end up with him leading an entire country on a not-so-merry dance, everyone desperate to gain the love and approval of a single dominant personality.

That weakling is Dr Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) a young medical graduate from Edinburgh, who is arrogant, cocksure over-sexed and over-here in Uganda, keen for adventure and to get as much sex and experiences in as he can while he’s over here. A gap-year student with a desire for the easy life, after a chance meeting Garrigan becomes chief-physician and confidant to Amin, a man with a deep love for Scotland and who likes to think of himself as a father to those around him. It takes Garrigan a long time to realise that this indulgent, if bad-tempered, charismatic father-figure  is in fact a brutal dictator, his eyes eventually opened by the experiences of one of Amin’s wives Kay (Kerry Washington) who pays a heavy price for mothering an epileptic and adultery. Will Garrigan escape from Uganda?

Macdonald’s film gets a brilliant sense of both the exotic appeal of Uganda at the time (and or Amin) and it’s heat-embroiled danger. The camera work is flooded with yellows and grimy details, that makes every scene feel like its bathed in heat (and later danger) as well as giving it a documentary realism (helped by its use of handheld and immediate footage). The story of the film itself is a fairly basic morality tale, but these stories work because of their universality and it’s clear that Garrigan’s selfishness, shallowness and self-interest is going to lead to a terrible awakening.

The film’s real strength is Whitaker’s tour-de-force as Idi Amin. Whitaker is an actor who has been straining at the leash for an explosive roll, and he gets one here. If ever there was a part that would allow an actor to let rip it’s the one, with Amin part Hannibal Lector, part decadent Roman emperor, a low-rent Hitler with an ego larger than his country. But the bombast and childish fury work because it is built within the framework of a sort of puffed-up magnetism, a charismatic “hail-fellow-well-met” bonhomie that suggests this guy could be the best fun in the room. So dripping in assurance and confidence is Amin that he becomes strangely attractive – and the sort of all-powerful force of nature that would have most of us smiling if we caught a word of approval from him.

The trick of the film is to front-and-centre this lighter, fun-loving aspect. It’s easy to enjoy it like Garrigan as Amin charms the audience as much as he does its lead character. Sure there may be violence at the margins, but good-old-Amin is just doing what needs to be done. He’s brilliant with the people. It’s funny when he on-a-whim appoints Garrigan to decide a major architectural pitch from several countries. He’s playful and enthusiastic. When he’s cross with people he seems at first more disappointed than angry. It’s only as the film goes on that we realise we have been gaslit as much as Garrigan, that Amin may be a fun guy but he also cares nothing for anyone and that the more his focus shifts away, the more we see his callous paranoia and lack of any moral scruples.

Certainly we start getting a sense of the ruthlessness he is prepared to exhibit to enforce his rule in Uganda and the brutality with which he will suppress any resistance. Aides killed in a failed assassination attempt illicit no sympathy. He feels no guilt or responsibility for anything he does. In one brutal moment he berates Garrigan for failing to counsel him against expelling all Asians from Uganda. When Garrigan protests he did, Amin only responds with “Yes, but you did not persuade me Nicholas!” the sort of inverted logic practised only by the insanely self-obsessed.

Whitaker’s performance powers all this, a magnetic masterclass in insanity, charisma and paranoia. He’s well matched by James McAvoy (the film’s real lead) whose performance is similarly a masterclass is shallowness and petty triteness. If anything the film is almost too successful in this. A Garrigan is such a little arsehole it takes quite a force of will to build up any sympathy for this serial shagger playboy. It’s capable to think as the fire turns on him that perhaps he deserves this – and the number of (mostly black) characters who lay down their lives to protect him starts to get a bit wearing after a while.

Because this in part is a film where actual Ugandans are not heard that much. The two principle characters we see are both victims: Kerry Washington in a thankless part as the attractive young wife you just know from day one Garrigan will climb into bed with and David Oyelowo as the sort of noble doctor you only seem to find in movies. For all its horror at Amin’s crimes, it’s still largely filtered through the eyes of a young, white, innocent abroad who sees up-front the dangers but the real victims of Amin, the Ugandans themselves, are clichés or elevated clichés.

While you could say that was not the point of the film, it still means we miss some of the real danger and psychopathy of the leading character, so absorbed are we in seeing the increasing peril of the white man caught up in it all. It’s why The Last King of Scotland doesn’t quite work as well as it should, any why it settles in the end for a being a morality tale plot-boiler about a monster at the heart of the forest, rather than a deeper and more intelligent film about the tragedy of an African state. It’s still enjoyable for all that, but it could have been more.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig investigate unspeakable evil in David Fincher’s superb The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Slander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Dirch Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Nils Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Goran Višnjić (Dragan Armansky), Donald Sumpter (Detective Morell), Ulf Friberg (Hans-Erik Wennerström), Geraldine James (Cecilia Vanger), Embeth Davidtz (Annik Giannini), Julian Sands (Young Henrik Vanger), David Dencik (Young Morell), Tony Way (Plague), Alan Dale (Detective Isaksson)

At the time of its release, there was a slightly cool reaction to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most reviewers were already familiar with the story twice over, firstly as the best-selling thriller then as the Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace. Perhaps fans were similarly slightly indifferent, while newbies had already declined the first two options, as the film struggled to crawl its way to breakeven. However, rewatching it, I feel this intriguingly well-made film deserves to be mentioned in the same discussion as another adaptation of a pulp thriller made 20 years earlier: The Silence of the Lambs.

Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is a crusading financial journalist and co-owner of Millenniummagazine, whose career is in ruins after his article about the CEO of a major company leads to him losing a costly legal battle for libel. He is approached by retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who asks him to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger, who vanished on their privately owned island estate. Blomqvist is hired after an exhaustive investigation into his personal life by emotionally challenged hacker and private investigator Lisbeth Slander (Rooney Mara), who is facing her own problems of gaining her independence from her position as a ward of the state, represented by her vile guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). As Blomqvist investigates, eventually with the help of Lisbeth, the trail takes a very dark turn suggesting a sinister hand behind the disappearance not only of Harriet but also of a number of other women around Sweden.

Fincher’s crisply made, icily cold movie embraces the coldness not only of wintery Sweden, but also the film’s chilling subject matter. There are very rarely – if ever – flashes of colour or light, with the world taking on an oppressive blackness and grey or windswept bleakness. It’s a perfect metaphor for the horror of what people do to each other. It’s brilliantly assembled, as you would expect from Fincher, and made with such consummate skill and excellence that its professional chill becomes almost oppressively unsettling, much like the plot itself.

Re-watching it I was put very much in mind of The Silence of the Lambs. That too was a masterfully made adaptation of a pulp novel that found a poetry and depth in the book, framing it around a series of unconventional relationships, with a female lead pushed into a role that sharply defies expectations. Both have at their centre a dangerous figure whose interests align with the other characters. Brilliantly, here the role of dangerously unpredictable genius and unexpected female role are both taken by Lisbeth Slander. (In fact Lisbeth is like a fusing of Clarice and Lector into one character). 

Like Lambs, which tapped into the 1990s obsession with the power of psychiatry and self-analysis and used it as the key to uncovering and defeating criminals, this takes our fascination with computers and the internet and uses that as silver bullet for finding criminals. Just as in the 1990s psychiatrists seemed to have access to some sort of mystical alchemy no one else could understand, so the film shows Lisbeth’s hacker skills as some sort of super power that can blow down secrets and accomplish things no one else can do. 

The film also echoes Lambs in its fascinating look at the place of women in the world. The film revolves around historical violence against women – when we finally have the killer unveiled he confirms women have only ever been his targets – and the film is heavy (in often wordlessly narrated flashbacks) with ominous feelings of danger from a domineering male culture. The world clearly hasn’t changed that much either. The killer continues to operate, everyone in a position of influence we see is an ageing man, Lisbeth’s ward is a vile sexual abuser. But, in this milieu of threat to women, Lisbeth becomes a sort of icon of a woman living life on her terms and taking control of her own life.

Impressively embodied by an Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara, Lisbeth is the sort of character you would normally expect to be a man: surly, anti-social, difficult, prone to violence, sexually indiscriminate, determined to always be in control and decisive in her relationships. She quickly takes the lead in her relationship with Mikael, professionally and later sexually (right down to her telling him where to put his hands during their passionate but also functional sex scenes). Mikael meanwhile takes far more the traditional “female” role: dedicated, hard-working, maternal, competent but better placed as the assistant to a true genius. Daniel Craig gives him a slightly rumpled middle-age quality, combined with a feckless recklessness that lands him in trouble.

The film is Lisbeth’s though, and Fincher brilliantly uses early scenes to establish her defiant, independent character. From snatching her bag back (brutally) from a would-be mugger on the underground, to a surly, blunt lack of respect she shows to a client, she’s painted clearly as a person who will respond how she wants, regardless of any “rules”. But Fincher also makes time to show her vulnerability. Lonely and insecure, she has worked hard to kill any vulnerability in her and protect herself from emotional pain. To see the small notes of tenderness she allows out – from her reaction to a former guardian suffering a stroke to her increasing emotional investment in Mikael – is strikingly engaging.

And we definitely see her suffering. If we had any doubts about one of the themes of this film being about how powerful men abuse and control women, the sub-plot of Lisbeth’s abusive warden (played with the pathetic, creepy relish of the small man enjoying what control he has by Yorick van Wageningen) hammers it home. The four key scenes between these characters cover a mini-arc in themselves from abuse of power, assault, revenge and power shift. Lisbeth may suffer terribly – more than she expects, much to her shock – but the sequence not only shows her ability to survive but also to turn the tables to her advantage. You could argue that this sort of rape-revenge fantasy might trivialise the impact rape has on real people – but it’s crucial for the theme of the film that there is hope that the sort of scum that abuse their positions can be stopped and that victims can survive and thrive. 

And you’ll need this as the film expands both into the past and the present day into a series of increasingly grim cases of historical abuse and murder. Fincher presents all this with the same brilliant, non-exploitative control that Jonathan Demme managed in Lambs. Despite the horrors of the themes, there is no lingering on anything graphic. Instead Fincher uses the tension of slowness, of steady camera work, of careful pacing to let tension and unease build up as we feel something is horribly wrong but never can be quite sure what. The final confrontation with the killer is not only deeply unsettling for it being one of the most brightly lit sequences of the film, but also for the middle-class banality of the villain’s taste (you’ll never listen to Orinoco Flow in the same way again) and the fascinatingly business-like approach he brings to his deeds of slaughter. 

The Girl with the Dragan Tattoo is such a well-made film that perhaps that’s its greatest weakness. It’s a little too easy to see a lack of personality in it, a professionalism, a clean perfection, a master craftsman quality, that you feel you are watching a studio picture made by a great director. And maybe you are: but then you could say the same about many of Hitchcock’s film, a director Fincher consciously echoes here. Superbly acted not just by the leads but by the whole cast (Plummer, Skarsgård and Wright are excellent while even Berkoff gives a restrained performance) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the sort of film that will surely only be considered in a warmer and warmer light as time goes by.

Gone Girl (2014)

Rosamund Pike is the Gone Girl leaving husband Ben Affleck in a difficult mess

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Ben Affleck (Nick Dunne), Rosamund Pike (Amy Elliott Dunne), Neil Patrick Harris (Desi Collings), Tyler Perry (Tanner Bolt), Carrie Coon (Margo Dunne), Kim Dickens (Detective Rhonda Boney), Patrick Fugit (Officer James Gilpin), Missi Pyle (Ellen Abbott), Emily Ratajkowski (Andie Fitzgerald), Casey Wilson (Noelle Hawthorne), Lola Kirke (Greta), Boyd Holbrook (Jeff), Sela Ward (Sharon Schieber), Lisa Banes (Marybeth Elliott), David Clennon (Rand Elliott)

In our modern media age, we’ve got massive expectations for how people are meant to behave. With so much of our perception of life filtered through the internet and films we’ve seen, we are reassured when we see behaviours we expect to see, and disconcerted when we see those we haven’t been trained to see. Not distraught enough at your wife going missing? Well you must have done it then!

That’s the problem that faces Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) in this chilling, intricate adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling book. Nick’s wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing in mysterious circumstances, possibly a kidnap, possibly a kidnapping gone wrong. The case becomes a media sensation, but the problem is Nick just isn’t expressive enough, won’t play the role of weeping husband. Instead he’s calm, distant and polite. So naturally rumour swirls that he did it – particularly after more and more manufactured evidence rears up to suggest he might have done. But does Amy have darker secrets than anyone might even suspect? Well to say any more would be a spoiler.

Fincher’s film is a tour-de-force of deliberately cold, polished looking perfection – which is designed to reflect back the surface perfection of the Dunnes’ deeply flawed marriage. Fincher’s film is in many ways a jet black social satire, using its almost outlandish shocks and twists to involve the audience in that “oh-no-they-didn’t!” way, in the same way that the Dunne media story fascinates the people in the movie.

“What have we done to each other?” Nick asks in voiceover early in the film, and it’s the question the film tackles obliquely: how much of the flashbacks to the relationship we see between Amy and Nick is real and how much springs from unreliable narration from Amy’s diary? Two handsome people living the American dream, but how much of it is an invented or projected narrative? Is their whole life a performance they are living for themselves and for others? Poor old Amy is even already semi-fictionalised person, a parents using her life as inspiration for a beloved children’s book character Amazing Amy.

So when Amy goes missing, the strain on Nick is very different from what you might expect. Rather than being consumed with grief, he feels wearied and dutiful about continuing a performance of a marriage which has long since ended. Nick’s actually too honest for this world – he won’t put on a show of how he is supposed to feel, he can only try not to make too much of a show of what he really feels. The mystery that builds around his and Amy’s marriage is born in this blunt honesty, of someone who won’t be what people want him to be. Of course that doesn’t stop Nick from being selfish or even a whiner.

Fincher mixes this intelligent commentary on society with, to be honest, the sort of bizarre extremism and bunny-boiling antics that make you unsurprised to hear he was inspired by Paul Verhoeven while making the film. It’s a film that shifts gears notably in the second half to become an increasingly gothic horror-thriller. A lot of this is powered also by Rosamund Pike’s excellent performance as Amy, a woman who seems almost completely cryptically unknowable, whose whole life has been a performance, and for whom taking on a series of roles and personalities is clearly not a challenge. Needless to say the person she turns out to be, and what she is capable of, is completely different from what the film leads you to expect.

It’s no surprise that a relationship featuring a person like Amy could go as south as the Dunnes’ has, but then Nick is hardly a saint either. Ben Affleck is just about perfect casting as a sort of All-American charmer gone to seed, a prickly fellow who wants privacy but also partly grows to enjoy the drama that surrounds him, once he works out the game he is playing. Fincher’s deliberately distant, smoothly clean-surfaced film frames modern day aesthetic perfection all round this seemingly dream couple.

The whole film is a nightmare vision of a love match gone wrong, of the after-effects of a beautiful story that has spiralled out into disappointment and everyday mundane life. And that struggle to keep the romance going in the familiar is at least something many of us can understand right? So it’s enjoyable to see that matched up with the freaky, semi-gothic blood and guts the film serves up in the second half, and the almost surreal Grand Guignol plot developments that power that half of the film (shot and scripted by Fincher and Flynn with a brilliant mixture of tension, horror and black comic delight at its extremity).

Like many Fincher films, there are several delightful performances. Pike is a revelation in a gift of a role, Affleck very good channelling his life lived in the spotlight. Carrie Coon is a stand-out as Nick’s exasperated, down-to-earth and loving twin sister. Kim Dickens is authorative and questioning as the police detective investigating the case, and Tyler Perry assured and cool as a hot-shot lawyer. Playing way against type, Neil Patrick Harris is pretty unforgettable as a slightly self-satisfied rich kid still holding a candle for Amy after all these years.

But the main success of the film is the whipper-sharp coldness of its execution, the cool tension Fincher ekes out of every moment, and the violent, Vertigo-ish obsession he gets out of every moment. Gone Girl works because it’s at first a chilling what-if story of a man in a media storm, which becomes a sort of black comedy so extreme that it pulls a delighted audience in to gasp at audacious characters getting away with outrageous things. As a black comic thriller it’s delightful.rela

Collateral (2004)

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx take a long taxi ride in Michael Mann’s thriller Collateral

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Tom Cruise (Vincent), Jamie Foxx (Max Durocher), Jada Pinkett Smith (Annie Farrell), Mark Ruffalo (Detective Ray Fanning), Peter Berg (Detective Richard Weidner), Bruce McGill (Frank Pedrosa), Irma P. Hall (Ida Durocher), Barry Shabaka Henley (Daniel Baker), Javier Bardem (Felix Reyes-Torrena)

Tom Cruise enjoys throwing us film-goers curveballs every now and again. In Collateral he pops up as a sociopathic hitman, grey of hair and suit (like a buzzcut, rampaging John Major) leaving bodies strewn about the place. It’s great to see him in Michael Mann’s lean, very enjoyable action thriller, looking as sleek and soulless as the rest of LA.

Cruise’s Vincent is a hitman in LA to knock off a list of targets. But how will he get from hit to hit? Why by hiring a taxi driver for a night: risk-averse dreamer Max (Jamie Foxx) who has been working “temporarily” as a taxi driver while he builds plans for his dream limo business for a mere 12 years. Max is thrilled to have a big spender in his car – until something goes wrong on hit #1 and a body lands on his cab. Max no has no choice but to assist Vincent – although Vincent ends up becoming more attached to Max than he might ever have imagined.

Mann shot his film on a high-definition video and it gives a very unique look at LA, really capturing the hazy yellows and cool blues of the city and giving everything in the picture a slightly grainier, starker look. But that would count for nothing if the story of the film wasn’t pretty good, and Collateral is a very effective action thriller, which doesn’t reimagine the genre but offers more than enough freshness to enliven the familiar elements it’s made up from. 

Its main assets (along with Mann’s cool, detached and pin-point sharp direction) are the performances of its two leads. Cruise is just about bang-on as a professional hitman, devoid of empathy, who finds surprising possibilities of friendship open in front of him. He’s a fascinating character, like someone who has spent so long studying people that he can just about replicate human reactions, without understanding the humanity behind them. Cruise’s obsessive preparation for his roles also help makes him flawlessly convincing as this lethal ubermensh.

Foxx however is just as good as a basically decent, friendly, low-key guy who is kidding himself that he is not drifting through life. It’s Max’s story we follow throughout the film – and it’s his sense of personal morality, his strict belief in right and wrong, that gives the film its dramatic force. Foxx also avoids undermining or laughing at Max, who is basically a man so buttoned up and cautious that (without a major push) he’ll clearly die of old age in that cab. 

These two characters thrown together have a curious chemistry – a sort of riff on the casual bonds that can develop between driver and passenger as they talk about their lives, views and interests. It’s not a friendship – certainly not in Max’s case – but it’s a strange sort of bond nevertheless. Vincent, you feel, hasn’t talked to many people like this – and while he’s still willing to threaten Max or put him at great risk, he still develops a strange protectiveness about him. It’s this quirky and different relationship that powers the film and finally makes it unique. This odd couple don’t overcome boundaries to become bosom friends, but they also don’t come together as fierce rivals. Instead they sort of work out a co-existence in that cab.

It’s the most interesting thing about a film that otherwise – to be honest – deals a pretty familiar deck with confidence. Sometimes the film plays its cards so well you overlook them – the first time I watched it, I was semi-surprised at the reveal of the final victim, but really it should be pretty obvious to anyone who has seen a movie before. The plot is full of moments like this that are played with a freshness – or with a cunning – that stops them from feeling familiar.

But that’s really what it is. The journey around LA from hit-to-hit is a familiar sounding idea. The encounters between Vincent and the targets are pretty familiar – the exception being a fascinating, and hard to read, encounter with Barry Shabaka Henley’s jazz player turned informant, which sizzles with tension – and the action scenes, while well staged, are the sort of shoot-outs we’ve seen before. Mann shoots them with a vibrant excitement, but it’s mostly B-movie stuff presented freshly.

What it comes down to is that relationship between those two characters, and the skill of director and actor in drawing out subtleties in performance. (Don’t listen by the way to the director’s commentary, which ruthlessly strips these subtleties away as Mann bangs on about heavy-handed, predictable backstories which thankfully don’t make it into the movie, but make it sound dumber than it is). Cruise and Foxx are both fantastic, Mann’s direction of this sort of icy-cold, impersonal, dangerous city is impeccable and the film itself doesn’t fail to entertain.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

The French military move into Algiers in Pontecorvo’s neo-realist masterpiece The Battle of Algiers

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Cast: Jean Martin (Colonel Mathieu), Yacef Saadi (Djafar), Brahim Hadjadi (Ali La Pointe), Tommaso Neri (Captain). Ugo Palette (Captain), Fusia El Kader (Halima), Mohamed Ben Kassen (Petit Omar)

Sometimes, when watching The Battle of Algiers, you have to catch yourself and remember everything you are watching was staged rather than real footage. That right there is the greatest strength of this film, and its ongoing legacy. It feels more real than the news, it looks more authentic than reality. Match that with the fact that (and it says a lot for the world that this is the case) its themes remain painfully resonant today, and you can see why it has had such a lasting and profound impact on film-makers.

Pontecorvo’s film dramatises (although that almost feels like the wrong word) events in Algiers, capital city of French Algeria, from November 1954 to December 1957 when the Algerian War of Independence turned the city into a near warzone, with its hub being an increasingly brutal struggle for control of the Casbah between the French authorities (and then army) and the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) cells. 

That description only gets a flavour of the film, which reconstructs the story with a truly awe-inspiring immediacy that feels like a slice of real life. The film has a fearless willingness to depict the dangerous struggle and violence in a combat between terrorists and soldiers. So we get violence on both sides, torture, murder, beatings, bombings of young civilians and other acts of brutality, all chronicled with a documentary realism that never feels exploitative or distasteful.

The film is often hailed as being scrupulously even-handed. I’d argue it isn’t quite – what it does do is recognise that both sides are human. The cause of Algerian independence is clearly one the film finds sympathetic, and while it shows acts of terror from the Algerians, the real acts of violence and prejudice come from the French authorities and citizens. The film doesn’t turn the Algerian terrorists into unspoilt martyrs, but it certainly regards their cause as right. So it can show them killing civilians and engaged in acts of violence, but still admire their cause (the film was made with the involvement of several former members of the NLF both in front of and behind the camera).

The film’s depiction of the French soldiers also gives more of an impression of even-handedness. These soldiers are not brutal or sadistic, but functionaries doing about a job (just following orders?) with a ruthless efficiency. The casting of Jean Martin (the only professional actor in the film) as French commando leader Colonel Mathieu also perhaps weights things, as Martin gives an engaging, morally conflicted performance, and the film lays great stress on Mathieu’s own experiences during the Second World War in the French Resistance and (it’s implied) in a concentration camp. 

The French soldiers go about their task of pacifying the terrorists with a campaign of capture, enhanced interrogation and systematic elimination of cell leaders, using their superior resources and training, in a way that the CIA (which screened the film for its agents in 2003 to help them understand terrorist cells) described as being a complete success militarily, but a total failure politically. It stamps out the Algerians in the Casbah, in a way that reduces casualties and restores order – but totally fails to win over the precious hearts and minds.

And Pontecorvo knows it’s hearts and minds that his film is all about. His camera immerses us in the heat and tension of the Casbah, picking out the faces of the non-professional extras (and actors) that populate his film, showing the bubbling tensions and resentment slowly building in a population that doesn’t start out as bitter and extremist, but becomes more and more so as the French stamp out the Algerian independence movement. People swirl around the action, increasingly objecting to the strict control procedures that segregate the Casbah from the rest of the city, and at several points crowding into potentially violent mobs, spurred on by some members of the NLF.

The NLF also has little compunction in the tactics it has to employ in order to stand any chance against the French. Pontecorvo frames the film around the experiences of Ali la Pointe (a striking performance from non-professional Brahim Hadjadi). It opens with la Pointe trapped by the French soldiers, flashing back to his initial recruitment, radicalisation and increasingly pivotal role as a cell leader under more the more urbane and political Djafar (Yacef Saadi, another non-professional playing a version of himself). 

La Pointe is our audience surrogate – and it’s surprising how we find ourselves drawn towards him. Especially since within the first 15 minutes he’s moved quickly from murdering gangsters in the Casbah to shooting cops and leading riots. Pontecorvo shoots and edits these moments of terrorist action and planning with a Hitchcockian skill. One particularly brilliant sequence follows three NLF women being selected, prepared for, traveling to and carrying out a series of bombings of cafes and bars in Algiers (the victims at one seem to be exclusively teenagers and young people).

The film is full of moments like this, all filmed with a gripping down-to-earth black-and-white realism, buzzing with tension. It’s brilliantly assembled and totally compelling, a documentary slice of Italian neo-realism that presents a fascinating look at the dangerous politics of resistance and occupation. The French military’s heavy-handed tactics are totally effective – even torture is shown to yield enough results to justify its use – but they are also completely wrong, morally repugnant but executed by soldiers going about their duty with no bitterness (Mathieu frequently tells the press that he hopes for a bright future for Algiers and even doubts the wisdom of occupation in the long run).

Pontecorvo’s film remains alarmingly prescient and relevant today – and it’s actually a little scary how little the world has changed. You can just as easily imagine the same events happening in Iraq or Afghanistan today. It’s told here with no sensationalism but a mostly objective even-handedness, that makes clear the side it favours but doesn’t demonise the other. As a slice of history turned into film it’s impeccable.

Marathon Man (1976)

“Is it safe?”: Laurence Olivier interrogates Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man

Director: John Schlesinger

Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Thomas “Babe” Levy), Laurence Olivier (Dr Christian Szell), Roy Scheider (Henry “Doc” Levy), William Devane (Peter Janeway), Marthe Keller (Elsa Opel), Richard Bright (Karl), Marc Lawrence (Erhadt), Fritz Weaver (Professor Biesenthal)

The 1970s were the era of the conspiracy thriller. These were deliberately enigmatic, almost opaque, mysteries in which a humble individual was thrown up against sinister forces, backed by equally shady governments. Marathon Man is a stylish (if rather impenetrable) mystery that offers some gripping moments but gets bogged down a little too much in pleasure at its edginess, darkness and professional assurance.

Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a post-graduate student working on a re-evaluation of the McCarthy era, partly aimed at clearing his father’s name (who committed suicide while under investigation). Babe’s brother Henry “Doc” (Roy Scheider) works for a shady government organisation, and has recently narrowly avoided assassination twice in France. Doc suspects the killers were sent by renegade-Nazi Dr Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier). Szell’s New York-based brother was recently killed in a car crash, and with his death Szell has lost vital access to his cash reserve of diamonds in a New York bank, which he needs to maintain his safety in Uruguay.

I hadn’t seen Marathon Man for several years, and I was struck by how long it takes to get going: it takes a solid 45 minutes to get to the point. Huge swathes of the opening act of the film is all about getting the set-up and atmosphere, rather than establishing the story. It also seems to be about setting up as complex as possible a context for a film that boils down to a pretty straightforward plot. Nearly all the action that Doc gets up to in Europe is pretty much impossible to work out and never seems to tie in with the rest of the plot once it starts (exciting as it is to watch him dodge assassination attempts). Even the marathon running of the hero, and his relationship with Marthe Keller’s mysterious swiss woman doesn’t in the end really tie in that closely with the story.

But then that’s often the way with Marathon Man. It’s a film in love with atmosphere, its Hitchcockian tricks and its brooding creepiness more than with logic, story or even (really) character. It’s pretty hard to work out what’s going on, and the muttered plot revelations and Schlesinger’s grimy, often deliberately obscure, filming style doesn’t always help the humble viewer work things out. It wants to be like other 70s thrillers and juggle huge events – but it’s actually a rather small-scale, humble film telling a deliberately dreary story, scored with a very 70s combination of electronic noises and plonking piano notes. Plot wise it never really explains what is it about, and gets so bogged down in cross and double cross that it eventually loses its own way.

Where the film does succeed is its individual scenes. Mention Marathon Man and anyone who has heard of it will immediately say “the dental torture film?” They might even say “Is it safe?”. Marathon Man’s dramatic centre-piece is this unnervingly taut torture scene (not too graphic it has to be said – gosh violence in films has moved on since 1976!) where Szell questions Babe (just the one question repeated over and over again) while using his dental skills to “encourage” Babe to answer (ouch!). Ever been even slightly squeamish about going for a dental check-up? This probably isn’t the film for you (heck even one of Szell’s murderous henchmen can’t watch). 

Schlesinger shoots this scenes extremely well, with the camera lingering effectively on everyday dental tools that become dreaded torture devices. Schlesinger builds sequences around action and violence very effectively: escape attempts by Babe are gripping and fight scenes are extremely tense, particularly Doc’s fending off of an assassin in a Paris hotel room.

That scene also highlights another effective part of Schlesinger’s direction of the film: his use of bystanders. The life and death struggle between Doc and an assassin is witnessed across the street by a wheelchair-bound old man powerless to intervene. The opening road-rage deaths of Szell’s Nazi brother and a furious New York Jew are intercut constantly with the reactions and confusions of people in New York’s streets. In the film’s finest scene, Szell has to undertake a terrifying (for him) walk through New York’s Jewish quarter to collect and value his diamonds. His paranoia and fear of being recognised mean he sweatily watches every face. When he is recognised by an old woman – who shrieks for help from bemused passers-by – you really feel Szell’s fear that this woman will turn the mass of watching New Yorkers into a lynch mob. The bystanders really add depth to the film’s paranoia – they are both dangerous and also help to isolate the characters.

The film’s main strength is Laurence Olivier’s stand-out sinister performance as the Mengele-like Szell. Terrifyingly cold, paranoid and sadistically proud, Szell is a truly great villain, and Olivier channels all his Shakespearean experience into turning him into an iconic villain. The film also really works matching Olivier’s imperious old-schoolishness with Hoffman’s edgy, brittle method (the famous anecdote from the film was Olivier’s aghast reaction to Hoffman’s decision to prepare for the torture scene by not sleeping for three days: “Dear boy, would it not be easier to just act?”).

Hoffman is actually very good in the film as a man out of his depth from the start who slowly becomes as hardened and dangerous as the people chasing him. In fact Hoffman, is so involving and empathetically frightened in this film (his desperate range of answers to “Is it safe” are really affecting) that you overlook that he is clearly far too old to be playing a college graduate. Roy Scheider is similarly good as his domineering, but loving spy brother.

But it’s Olivier’s mastery of nastiness that really makes the film lodge in your mind. Schlesinger’s film is often long-winded, opaque and confusing, but Olivier delivers a master-class in imperious nastiness. Szell is a nightmare image of the well-spoken, polite monster and Olivier’s eyes carry a spark of intense menace. Honestly I could happily watch just the scenes he is in – particularly that masterfully performed street walking scene – and be happy to stick with that. The rest of the film is often a bit of a murky mess, but when Oliver is at the centre you forget all that. Marathon Man is a conspiracy thriller so confusing I think it confuses itself – but in the individual scenes it often brilliantly captures dread, discomfort and fear.

The International (2009)

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts are lost in the high-pressure world of big finance in The International

Director: Tom Twyker

Cast: Clive Owen (Louis Salinger), Naomi Watts (Eleanor Whitman), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Wilhelm Wexler), Ulrich Thomsen (Jonas Skarssen), Brian F. O’Byrne (The Consultant), James Rebhorn (New York DA), Michel Voletti (Viktor Haas), Patrick Baladi (Martin White), Jay Villiers (Francis Ehames), Fabrice Scott (Nicolai Yeshinski), Haluk Bilginer (Ahmet Sunay), Luca Barbareschi (Umberto Calvini), Alessandro Fabrizi (Inspector Alberto Cerutti), Felix Solix (Detective Iggy Ornelas), Jack McGee (Detective Bernie Ward), Ben Whishaw (Rene Antall), Lucian Msamati (General Motomba)

Welcome to another of my unlikely pleasures. I remember seeing The International because we took a punt on it with an Orange Wednesday 2-for-1. I had no real expectations, but I was totally wrapped up in it. It has an old-school 1970s Hollywood-conspiracy-thriller feel. I keep waiting for it to be rediscovered (I’m waiting in vain it seems). But it’s a wonderful, tense little thriller which – by focusing on the shady, morally corrupt dealings of private banks – always seems relevant. Throw in alongside that a truly stand-out action set-piece at the centre of the film and you have a much overlooked pleasure.

Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) is a scruffy Interpol agent, with a reputation for getting too involved in his cases. Working with Assistant New York DA Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts), Salinger is investing possible illegal arms deals involving private investment bank IBBC. After their inside contact and Whitman’s fellow DA are both murdered in quick succession, Salinger takes the battle directly to IBBC. But the bank, chaired by ruthlessly blank businessman Jonas Skarsson (Ulrich Thomsen), is prepared to go to increasingly violent lengths to protect its interests, with assassinations arranged by its in-house security expert ex-Stasi agent Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and carried out by his mysterious Consultant (Brian F. O’Byrne).

Tom Twyker shoots the film in cool grays and drained out colours, giving it a very cold palette fitting for its exploration of the ruthless viciousness of big business. Twyker uses the cold, modern architecture of the various businesses the film is set in to great effect, making a wonderful, imposing backdrop. The camera constantly allows this domineering modern architecture to fill the frame, and mixes it up with some well-chosen aerial shots that reduces the action to cogs in a machine. It’s a very distinctive visual film – and it’s not until it finishes that you realise (apart from blood) you’ve really seen a red, a green or a purple in the whole film. There’s no jittery editing or hand-held camerawork – it’s got a smooth old-school cinematic quality to it.

The plot is a chilling conspiracy thriller, that (within the confines of a Hollywood action thriller) gets really in-deep into the workings of big finance. Critics accused it of being a light-weight Jason Bourne but really it’s more of a colder Parallax View. It largely eschews action in favour of paranoia, investigation and simmering tension. It’s a well-constructed journey down the rabbit hole, as Salinger gets both closer towards answers, and further away from bringing anyone to justice. 

Clive Owen’s rumpled performance is perfect. Far from being a “Bond audition”, Salinger is an outsider, a man who lives for his job, who wears his heart on his sleeve, and spends large chunks of the film either terrified or out-of-his-depth. Practically the first thing that happens to him is being knocked out by the wing-mirror of a truck. His grubby, unshaven scruffiness doesn’t recover from that. Owen gives the performance both a moral conviction and a slight air of desperation and bewilderment, as if he can’t quite understand why others aren’t as wrapped up in his case as he is.

He’s part of a great cast of actors – the film is full of unusual choices and rewarding cameos. Armin Mueller-Stahl mastered playing these world-weary ex-spies years ago, but delivers here. Broadway star Brian F O’Byrne is great, as a ruthlessly efficient hitman. Ulrich Thomsen is rather good as the blank businessman and family man, who seems to see no moral issues in the conduct of his bank’s business. Interesting actors like Patrick Baladi, James Rebhorn, Luca Barbaeschi, Haluk Bilginer and Lucian Msamati round out the cast with terrific cameos – there is always a unique actor and dynamic performance around every corner.

The plot of the film doesn’t unfold the way you expect it to – and mixes hope with a nihilistic powerlessness. Twyker’s directing is professional and he adds a lot of intelligence to a standard Hollywood set-up. He also throws in a few moments where the film pauses to reassess things we’ve seen before or to allow Salinger to puzzle out another crucial clue.

And it’s fitting for a film so in love with overwhelming power of modernist architecture that its most explosive sequence takes place in New York’s Guggenheim museum. This is a gut-wrenchingly exciting, destructive gun battle that serves as the pivot point. Brilliantly shot and edited, and perfectly built towards, it explodes into the film and grabs your attention. Owen again is perfect for this sequence – determined, but terrified and completely out of his depth – and Twyker’s use of the Guggenheim is masterful. Honestly it’s one of the best shoot-out scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie: five minutes of brilliance. You’d remember the film for that scene alone, if for nothing else.

Okay it’s not a perfect film by any stretch. Poor Naomi Watts has a thankless, ill-formed part. I’m pleased the film doesn’t include any romantic connection between the two characters at all, but (despite her work on the case) Whitman seems more a plot device than a character. The script largely fails to serve up too many memorable lines – and its main strengths are to present familiar actions and events in a fresh manner. Some have found the plot momentum to often flag – and there is something to that – and the overall schemes of the bank are not always completely clear.

But, nevertheless, I really like The International. It’s got a classic old-school feel to it. Its views on the immorality of big business feel very true, as does its presentation of the villain as basically a monolithic institution – the actual guys running the bank seem irrelevant, it’s just the ongoing nature of business. And in this world of corporations, where destroying a few men don’t admit to a hill of beans, how can truth and justice ever win out? Even if it had nothing else, tackling that idea makes The International feel like something new and worth revisiting. Well that, and that Guggenheim gun fight…

Black Swan (2010)

Natalie Portman in the intense world of ballet in Aronofsky’s crazy masterpiece Black Swan

Director:  Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbara Hershey (Erica Sayers), Winona Ryder (Beth MacIntyre), Benjamin Millepied (David Moreau), Ksenia Solo (Veronica), Kristina Anapau (Galina), Janet Montgomery (Madeline), Sebastian Stan (Andrew)

Something about ballet just makes people think of obsession. Many dancers criticised Black Swan for perpetuating myths about the dangerous psychology, the quest for perfection, the personal life imbalance connected with the all-consuming art ballet seems to be. It’s hard not to agree with them – but that doesn’t mean Black Swan isn’t unsettling, creepy and hypnotic film-making. 

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an obsessive member of the New York Ballet, focused on achieving perfection and lives a sheltered, barely adult life at home, dominated by her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). With the forced retirement of company lead Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), Diagheliv-style director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) selects Nina to play the dual role lead of white and black swan in Swan Lake. Leroy feels she is perfect for the innocent white swan, but needs to work on the sensual black swan. Increasingly feeling the pressure of playing the role under the demanding Leroy – and growing increasingly preoccupied with her understudy Lily (Mila Kunis) – Nina’s fragile psyche begins to fracture.

Black Swan is a mesmerising mixture of psychological drama, melodrama, Cronenberg-style body horror, unreliable narration and immersion into a pressure-cooker world. It’s often difficult to watch, sometimes maddeningly over-blown, and overly tricksy in its intense visual style. But despite that, it’s actually compellingly watchable, an audacious tight-rope walk between style and substance that constantly feels like it’s going to get lost in its extremes but never does.

Aronofsky’s camera flies and whirls like the ballet dancers he is recording, and he creates a wonderfully dark spin on The Red Shoes. What I found particularly fascinating watching the film again after many years is how unreliable and imprecise so much of the story is. Told completely from the perspective of Nina – a woman subject to delusions, chronic social insecurity and an increasingly split psyche – it becomes clear that a lot of what we see may not be as clear-cut as we think. 

This most obviously affects our perception of Mila Kunis’ rival (or is she?) dancer Lily. How many of the interactions we see are actually happening, and how many are fantasies? With Lily becoming an alternative physical form for Nina’s projection of her own “black swan” persona (several times, Lily’s face morphs and shifts into Nina’s), we have to question virtually every appearance we see of her – and interpret her personality from the prejudiced, fearful view seen by Nina. Similarly, Barbara Hershey’s domineering mother (while undoubtedly controlling) is perhaps not the monster we see. She’s clearly 100% right in her fears for Nina’s sanity. How much of her behaviour is possessive jealousy and how much is it a protective parent who knows her daughter is a danger to herself?

Then of course we have Nina herself. Natalie Portman won every award going for her performance here, a tour de force of bravura dementedness mixed with vulnerability. Nina is a character who we only slowly realise as the film progresses is not the innocent, childlike waif she first appears, but has a much darker, more complex personality. Her “black swan” side – the darker, sexual side of her personality she is encouraged to explore – slowly expresses itself more and more as a physically. Portman clearly demonstrates the differences between the two sides of Nina’s personality. Her increasing desperation, isolation and insecurity are very effective – and the moments where she allows the “black swan” persona to control her actions are riveting.

Aronofsky explores Nina’s unbalanced mind with moments of pure body horror – although it’s grand guignol ickyness like this that probably pushed some people too far. It ties into most of the film being (quite possibly) a series of Nina’s vivid fantasies. Ballet wounds become increasingly magnified – from a broken toe nail early on, to Nina obsessively picking and scratching any wound. In one impossible to watch moment she obsessively picks off a long strip of skin from a finger wound (fortunately revealed immediately after to be fantasy). Beginning to believe she is growing wings, she obsessively scratches her back and has visions of swan flesh morphing over her body. At one point she fantasies her legs breaking into swan legs. In between this are bouts of sexual exploration – both solo and with partners – that seem increasingly unnerving. 

Aronofsky’s ballet world is one of meticulous work and back-stabbing brutality. An early sequence covers Nina’s almost ritualistic preparations of her ballet shoes. The troupe, far from supportive, seems to be ripe for bitchy debate and rivalry (although of course some of this may well be Nina’s unhinged perception). Winona Ryder has a neat cameo as a former star dancer, ruthlessly dumped for being too old. Vincent Cassel’s director is at best a domineering bully and at worst a position-abusing horndog, depending on how reliable Nina’s perspective is. It’s the setting of a melodrama, and Aronofsky has expertly mixed a Silence of the Lambs style psycho-drama and The Fly style horror.

Portman holds the film together brilliantly under Aronofsky’s distinctive direction. It’s not going to be for everyone – but Aronofsky understands ballet if nothing else, shoots it brilliantly, and when we finally see Nina fully transformed as the Black Swan dancing the final performance, the energy and controlling focus of her performance, and its beauty, really comes across (even to a ballet ignoramus like me).

Black Swan is such an off-the-wall mix of styles, and so out there in some of its visuals, story developments and characterisations, that it’s not going to please everyone. In fact, catch this on the wrong day and you’ll hate this film (and probably really, really, really hate it). But catch it at the right time and it will stick with you. But whatever your view of its gothic style and content, you’ll admire Portman’s performance, respect the craft with which it has been made, and enjoy several fine performances from Cassel, Hershey and Kunis among others. It’s weird. Very weird. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.