USA (153 mi) 2013 d: Denis Villenueve Official site
USA (153 mi) 2013 d: Denis Villenueve Official site
Like Susan Bier, Lone Scherfig, Tom Tykwer, Nimrod Antal, Oliver Hirschbiegel, Wong Kar-wai, John Woo, Guillermo del Toro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and the latest Nicholas Winding Refn effort before him, not to mention countless others, this is another example of a Hollywood flameout by a terrific foreign director, in this case a Canadian from Quebec making his first big budget Hollywood movie with a $50 million dollar budget and what appears to be a terrific cast, and despite the sleek look captured by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, one of the best in the business, the film starts out with a certain amount of intrigue before taking a nosedive into the kind of sadistic territory that America is starting to represent to the world. If charges of torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were not bad enough, Hollywood churns out even more deplorable violent imagery, where at some point one would have to ask who is responsible for writing this kind of depressing stuff, and who wants to film it and make it into a movie? While this movie may have earned back nearly half its production cost in the first week, word of mouth is going to kill it, as this is not a feelgood movie, or a complicated whodunit, but it’s a director who knows how to build suspense, but to what end? Some of the early reviews suggested this was a tense, white knuckles thriller that would have viewers on the edge of their seats, and the story itself, written by Aaron Guzikowski, is a suspense thriller whose interest quickly evaporates, forcing the audience to literally endure nearly two hours of torture that never seems to end. While it may have been an attempt to resurrect the torture argument before the American public, who felt this was a topic of entertainment, or a subject we need to revisit? More likely this is the kind of story idea floating around Hollywood, as torture porn has found its way into the mainstream of the movie industry, viewed by audiences around the world, so no one even thinks to question whether it’s a good idea anymore, they just re-use formulaic ideas from existing financially successful films.
More than a suspense thriller, or even a police procedural, this is actually a vigilante movie, one where Charles Bronson in the 70’s would resort to the same kind of savage brutality as the bad guys, but because he was always on the side of good, avenging his daughter or protecting neighborhoods and families that the police were disturbingly unable to protect, so audiences accepted his vicious overkill, including a hair-trigger temper and near samurai speed and skill with a gun. Despite heavy obstacles set in his path, Bronson would always kickass and save the day, becoming an avenging angel, much like the perception of Travis Bickle at the end of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), or Clint Eastwood in his 70’s and 80’s American westerns. But America after 9/11 has become a more divided political landscape filled with moral uncertainty, where Hollywood has resorted to apolitical heroes that include mythical animated strongmen and women as well as futuristic space adventure epics that save the universe, where comic book superheroes make megabucks at the box office. Even Woody Allen has spent the better part of a decade away from America to make his movies. The nation as a whole has found it difficult to settle upon likeable heroes that don’t themselves remain morally conflicted, like Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a fictional TV crime boss who vacillates emotionally from the constant turmoil about being a loving father and family man while having to make a living where he’s forced to commit brutal murders. Where in the past it was always easy to tell the good guys from the bad, in the post 9/11 era that’s not so clear, where that’s particularly evident in this movie. Unfortunately, much of what this resorts to are stereotypes that insult the audience’s intelligence and only diminishes the complexity and overall appeal, even as the audience wades through the various twists and turns in the road, as the narrative outcome remains elusively uncertain. An overall sense of dread is prevalent throughout, easily sustained due to the subject matter, but one has to question the methods used to advance the suspense.
In a weird casting choice, Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a carpenter barely scraping out a living in the suburbs, but also a hard corps American survivalist with fundamentalist religious roots, whose family motto is “Pray for the best but prepare for the worst,” words he takes to heart, ingraining the seriousness of it into his teenage son with a constant drumbeat. Dover is the kind of driven, no-nonsense figure who takes things to the limit, but is also a self-righteous man that refuses to acknowledge his own mistakes, believing it is his manly duty to remain strong for his wife and children. The cast is superlative, one of the best ensemble casts seen all year, though only a few stand out, where one of the most egregious crimes of the film is the criminal underuse of some of the actors, especially those of color. Set in the cold and rainy hills of Pennsylvania, Dover and his family walk across the street to spend Thanksgiving with the Birch family, none other than Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, where the kids would rather play outside. In the course of the afternoon, two six year old girls end up missing, one from each family. After an initial panic, it becomes clear they didn’t just run away, that they were more likely abducted, where a beat up RV camper was seen parked nearby but has disappeared along with the girls. When a police detective arrives on the scene, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dover goes berserk, becoming an obnoxiously aggressive, perpetually angry parent that wants the police to be as gung ho as he is, literally intimidating them not to be anything less. Loki is a dedicated and devoted officer, but his deliberate and methodical methods contrast with the wildly impulsive actions of Dover. When the police find the RV, they discover the driver is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally damaged young man with a child’s IQ, who is arrested and released, as there is no evidence found in the van linking the presence of the girls.
Dover, however, hounds the suspect, eventually kidnapping and brutally torturing him, keeping him locked in an abandoned building, absolutely positive that he knows something. As there are no other suspects, the film is largely about taking the law into your own hands, becoming judge and jury, where the merciless brutality reveals nothing, only more horrific acts. When the Birch family acquiesces to the gruesome methods, literally aiding and abetting, the moral center of the film is blown to bits, becoming more about the tactics of torture than child abduction. With Dover representing the fundamentalist conservative, with the liberal Birch family so easily drawn into the fray as well, the film suggests all bets are off on personal ethics when it’s your kid that’s been abducted, where in desperation you’ll do anything, cross any moral line, resort to the ugliest of human impulses short of murder in order to force the victim to tell you what you want to hear. The rest of the film concerns itself with human depravity, even as it continues to build suspense for the missing girls. Even as evidence suggests there may be another suspect, Dover single-mindedly continues his personal crusade, refusing to acknowledge he could be wrong, where his arrogance defies reason, yet he continues. Personally driven in much the same way, but held to legal standards, Loki is equally determined to find the girls, where their overriding obsession dominates the film, while after awhile the series of discovered clues feels like mere afterthought. This is a picture that may as well have the theme: “This is a man’s world,” as mens’ obsessions drive the action, where both refuse to break. The relentlessly dark material clouds any real enjoyment of what is otherwise a well-made thriller, though the film continually bogs down in near misses and misleading evidence, so much of the time it feels like they’re continuously running in circles until the end sequence rolls, where it has the ominous feeling of an end sequence even before it develops, though by the end, one feels like they’re still left in the darkness.