When people...and movies...snap.
by Ed Owens
It's low tide for the horror genre. The days of the straight-up
horror film are apparently behind us, long forgotten in the wake of
the post-modern juggernaut that was Scream. Since the
appearance of Wes Craven's loving ode to cinema's most underappreciated
genre, horror films and their makers have felt the need to wink at their
audience, to remind us that it's all a game at the precise moment when
they should be letting us stew in the primal fear they have (hopefully)
Low tide indeed.
doesn't mean there aren't contenders. Take Frailty, for
example. Bill Paxton's directorial debut is, for the most part, a return
to the traditions of Southern Gothic that seeks to stand on the shoulders
of its predecessors. Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) shows up in
the office of FBI Agent Doyle (Powers Booth) claiming to know the identity
of the God's Hand murderer, a serial killer so named because of his
tendency to leave notes claiming that he is acting as God's instrument.
When asked how he knows, Meiks relates a story from his childhood, that
of Meiks' father (Bill Paxton), a widower (his wife died giving birth
to Fenton's brother, Adam) who wakes one night after a startling vision:
demons walk the earth disguised as people, and the boys' father has
been chosen to destroy them.
The majority of the movie is a series of flashbacks, focusing on the
two boys and a father who may or may not be crazy. All three performances
are wonderfully suited to the material, with Paxton playing against
type without devolving into mere scenery-chewing. The real find is Matthew
O'Leary as the young Fenton. He handles some extremely difficult (and,
speaking as a father, troubling) material with a grace and ease seldom
found among more accomplished actors.
a director, Paxton shows a great deal of maturity, allowing the film
to move at a simmering pace that wrings the most out of the material
without letting the audience drift. The credit has to be shared with
cinematographer Bill Butler, who brings Brent Hanley's story vividly
to life. The three work very well together, pulling off scenes that
are genuinely creepy and deeply disturbing without the smug self-awareness
so prevalent in today's horror offerings.
But the end result is bittersweet. The film's resolution piles one
absurdity on top of another until the movie implodes. The successes
of the film's first hour and change are all but undone by the time the
credits roll, leaving behind little more than a burned-out shell of
what used to be. It's hard to say precisely who dropped the ball. (Do
you fault Hanley for writing it or Paxton for filming it? At least Butler's
images remain constant.) But drop the ball somebody did.
Frailty comes so close to being exactly what the horror genre
so desperately needs, an honestly spooky story about the monsters that
lurk in the shadows, a story that ends with a "boo." Too bad
Paxton and crew ended theirs with a punchline.
Changing Lanes, on the other hand, is one big punchline,
a film that expects you to swallow a series of events so implausible
and absurd that you may find yourself laughing when you're supposed
to be gasping. When hotshot law partner Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) has
a fender bender with recovering alcoholic/estranged ex-husband and father
Doyle Gibson (Samuel L. Jackson), the two part on less than amiable
terms, resulting in an increasing spiral of vindictiveness as each man
tries to one up the other in a moralistic game of "Make you flinch."
film is being touted as an intelligent thriller, one that allows its
characters (and the audience) to ponder the morality of its characters
and their actions. However, I found it to be less of a meditation than
a force feeding: the film introduces supporting characters for no other
reason than to allow them to deliver contrived monologues spelling out
for the more comatose members of the audience the various moral dilemmas
faced by the two antagonists; Banek and Gibson are not so much developed
as yanked back and forth, flip-flopping more than the fish at the end
of Faith No More's Epic video (they come across more as having
conflicting personalities than personal conflicts); and Roger Michell's
direction is so heavy-handed, it seems to be competing with Chap Taylor's
screenplay for the title of Most Obnoxiously Obvious.
There's a moment when Ben Affleck's character, deeply troubled and
confused (as evidenced by his furrowed brow and drooping demeanor) wanders
into a church just as the Good Friday mass begins (cue cross, sermon
on redemption, etc.). That moment also happens to be the precise moment
I stopped even trying not to laugh, chuckling to myself and rolling
my eyes. By the time the film reached its gloriously contrived end,
I was in tears, though not for reasons the filmmakers might have wanted.
©2002 Ed Owens