‘Seven Psychopaths’ Lays Waste To Many Action Movie Cliches

Seven Psychopaths movie poster

Leave it to playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh to find ways to skewer those endless clichés we keep seeing in action movies. Seriously, it feels like so many directors outside of Quentin Tarantino have tackled them to where we are completely burned out on films which try to show how clever they are in taking apart clichés which have long since been torn apart time and time again.

McDonagh’s film “Seven Psychopaths” appears to be another one of those satirical and incredibly violent action movies on the surface, but underneath it all is a surprisingly moving story about friendship. Now I can already hear a lot of people telling me how using violence to tell a story like this is utterly hypocritical, but they are clearly not aware of McDonagh’s plays like “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” or “A Behanding in Spokane,” and they clearly have not seen his previous movie, the brilliant “In Bruges.” All those works do have a high level of blood and violence in them, but they are not simply designed to shock people. Instead, McDonagh uses those elements to get at a deeper truth about life and the people closest to us, and this is not always apparent to those who view his work from a distance.

The movie stars Colin Farrell as Marty Faranan, a struggling writer who is eager to finish his screenplay which is also titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is he spends far more time getting drunk on wine and beer than he does in writing anything. So far, the only idea Marty has come up with is a Quaker psychopath who finds an interesting way to follow someone to the afterlife (I won’t dare give it away here). His actor friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is eager to help him, but he is caught up in his part time business of dog kidnapping with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken). With this business, they cleverly managed to abduct dogs, and then they return them to their owners for a reward.

One of the dogs Billy kidnaps, however, turns out to be a Shih Tzu named Bonnie which belongs to Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a vicious gangster who has far more love for animals than he does for humanity. This forces Marty, Billy and Hans to go on the run as Charlie and his henchmen will stop at nothing to get little Bonnie back. While making their getaway, they come to look at what has become of their lives and of how they need one another’s friendship to survive in such a competitive world.

Now combining comedy with violence (and we are talking very bloody violence here) is never an easy mix as it often feels uneven in most movies which attempt it. Bobcat Goldthwait tried it earlier this year with “God Bless America” which had its two main characters going on a crime spree in which they killed off various spoiled rotten celebrities with extreme prejudice. While Goldthwait mostly succeeded with that film, he was walking a thin line between success and failure as his subject matter proved to be very controversial.

McDonagh has it a little easier than Goldthwait though as, while the struggles of these Hollywood wannabe characters does feel a bit realistic, the story has him dealing with a number of seriously deranged characters, all of whom seem comfortably removed from reality. And as he did with “In Bruges,” McDonagh does a wonderful job of combining some laugh out loud moments with scenes of strong emotion. As a result, you never are sure what exactly will happen from one scene to the next.

In movies like these, Colin Farrell appears to be having the most fun as an actor. After appearing in the needless remake of “Total Recall,” he fares much better as a writer who is afflicted with self-doubt and is not always the nicest person to be around. But the joy of watching Farrell here is seeing his character grow as a person right up to the film’s conclusion, and he is much better at accomplishing this than many typically give him credit for.

Watching Sam Rockwell as Billy Bickle once again reminds us how he is a powder keg of creativity and is as unpredictable as most actors get these days. Rockwell is endlessly entertaining as his character takes some interesting twists and turns throughout the movie, and he almost steals the show as he performs for Farrell’s and Walken’s characters what he thinks is the best climax of an action flick ever. The audience I saw this with at Arclight Hollywood ended up applauding him when he was finished, and you do not always see this happening in a movie theater.

Then there is Christopher Walken who still appears to be going back and forth from being a brilliant actor to one who engages in self-parody a bit too much (“I gotta have more cowbell!”). But as Hans, Walken gives one of his very best performances in a long time as he perfectly captures the character’s giddiness at how he makes a living to unveiling a deep pain which he can no longer hide when tragedy overtakes his life. All the way up to his last moment onscreen, Walken is a marvel and a thrill to watch.

Woody Harrelson himself has been on a roll in movies for the past few years, and his performance as Charlie Costello is absolutely inspired. You come out of “Seven Psychopaths” feeling like Harrelson was born to play this role, and this is saying something when you consider Mickey Rourke was originally cast as Charlie before he had some sort of falling out with McDonagh. But this character brings out that wonderful comic touch Harrelson consistently gave off in “Cheers” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and it also showcases the uninhibited darkness which he unforgettably portrayed in “Rampart” and “Natural Born Killers.” Harrelson can go from being funny to frightening in zero seconds flat, and you do not even have to be a pesky paparazzi photographer to see this.

There are also some terrific turns from Kevin Corrigan and Željko Ivanek as two of Costello’s hoods, and Tom Waits is wonderful in a supporting role as a remorseful psychopath. The movie is also aided by a great film score by Carter Burwell, an excellent production design from David Wasco, and some beautiful cinematography from Ben Davis.

The only place “Seven Psychopaths” falters is in its use of female characters. Abbie Cornish portrays Kaya, Marty’s girlfriend, and she gets very little to do here other than get insulted by Marty and Billy and look pretty pissed off about it. While Cornish does look beautiful when she is pissed, we all know she is capable of much more.

Olga Kurylenko also shows up as Costello’s girlfriend, Angela, and she is a wonderful presence as well but has also been given a role which is smaller than she deserves. Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame fares a little better as Sharice, the girl who accidently loses Costello’s beloved Shih Tzu, but this role is meant as nothing more than a cameo. But considering Cornish and Kurylenko get top billing, you cannot help but expect them to have better characters to play here.

Still, “Seven Psychopaths” is a very entertaining movie and a must for any fan of McDonagh. Yes, it is violent and plays around with all those things which keep getting repeated ad nausea in action movies, but it also is about wanting something more in a story than just guys with guns. I will leave it up to you the viewer to see how McDonagh accomplishes this here.

Also, it will also leave you wondering about the following question: does a human head explode if you shoot it in the right spot? This same question was asked in Edgar Wright’s “Hot Fuzz,” and inquiring minds are still looking for an answer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Martin McDonagh on the Making of ‘Seven Psychopaths’

Martin McDonagh on the set of Seven Psychopaths

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012 when this screening took place.

Playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh dropped by Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood for a Q&A about his movie “Seven Psychopaths.” It features a terrific ensemble cast which includes Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits and Olga Kurylenko, and it follows the exploits of a writer who is desperate to finish his screenplay even as his friends inadvertently get him involved in the kidnapping of a gangster’s beloved dog.

“Seven Psychopaths” is McDonagh’s follow up to his brilliant movie “In Bruges,” but it turns out he wrote the script for it after he finished writing “In Bruges.” He explained he made “In Bruges” first because the script for “Seven Psychopaths” had a “canvas that was way too big for a first-time filmmaker.” This movie certainly has a lot of layers as it deals with multiple characters and storylines, and many of the characters have more to reveal about themselves than we realize at first glance.

The evening’s moderator said she once heard how McDonagh had admired Christopher Walken as a child, and McDonagh said he felt we all did as much as we respected Harry Dean Stanton (who has a cameo in the movie) or Tom Waits. It also turns out this was not the first time McDonagh had worked with Walken on a project.

Martin McDonagh: I did a play in New York with Christopher and Sam Rockwell about three years ago (“A Behanding in Spokane”), so I had that in. It was a dream come true to have Chris on set and doing his stuff.

McDonagh recalled the atmosphere on the set of “Seven Psychopaths” as being “strangely a lot of fun,” and the audience at Arclight Hollywood could certainly sense all the fun this cast of actors had. When asked if there was any improvisation, he said everyone pretty much stuck to the screenplay despite some exceptions.

MD: There were some little bits at the end of the shootout sequence in the graveyard, but everything else was on the page. The actors were so good that they made every line seem like they had come up with it on the spot. I think that’s the secret of truthful acting; to make it seem like it’s all improvised.

The dog playing Bonny was a Shih Tzu who is also named Bonny in real life, and McDonagh was great in describing how this one got cast.

MD: There were four or five Shih Tzus that came in to the casting couch. Bonny seemed more kind of edgy and the others were all ribbons and shampooed. Bonny felt like early De Niro.

McDonagh also made it clear if he knew the possibility of all those puns which made it into the movie’s advertisements like “they won’t take any Shih Tzu,” he would have gone with a German Shepherd instead. But it came down to deciding what would be the most incongruous dog for Harrelson’s gangster character to have, and Shih Tzus are so irresistibly cute. Bonny was apparently very sweet to work with, and the cast, especially Walken, spoiled the dog like crazy.

The main character played by Farrell is a writer named Marty Faranan, and Faranan is McDonagh’s middle name. However, aside from the middle name and the alcoholism, McDonagh claimed there are no connections between him and this character. McDonagh did however say what Marty wanted to accomplish with his script is the same thing he wanted to accomplish with this movie.

MD: The speech that Marty has at the start about wanting to make a film called “Seven Psychopaths” but still wanting it to be about love and peace is kind of where I was coming from. It’s really about friendship and for searching for something beyond movies about guys with guns. At the same time, it was a crazy guys with guns violent movie.

One of the best things about “Seven Psychopaths” is how it satirizes action movies and the clichés which continue to overrun them. The moderator talked of how there are certain conventions in them which seem to imply how you cannot kill a dog but that you can kill a woman, and McDonagh freely admitted he is constantly rankled by them as much he is from the notes he gets from studio executives.

MD: When you have a character putting a gun to a dog’s head you get a thousand notes about that, but not one about shooting someone in the stomach. Not one.

In terms of his cinematic influences, McDonagh cited the films of Sam Peckinpah and Terence Malick as being major ones on his cinematic work. When it comes to “Seven Psychopaths” however, he admitted Peckinpah was definitely the bigger influence. Other filmmakers whom he looks up to include Akira Kurosawa who made the classic “Seven Samurai,” Martin Scorsese whose film “Mean Streets” was a big influence on this film, Preston Sturges who made screwball comedies like “The Lady Eve,” and Billy Wilder whose darkly comic and satirical films he admires. Clearly, McDonagh is more influenced by old school filmmaking than he is by current mainstream entertainment

Martin McDonagh has more than earned his place among the greatest and most inspired playwrights working today, and his work as a filmmaker keeps getting better and better. “Seven Psychopaths” is a very clever movie which deserves a big audience, and it was great to see him take the time to come down to Arclight Hollywood to talk about its making.

Terrence Howard On His Future As An Actor and ‘Dead Man Down’

Dead Man Down Terrence Howard photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place in 2013.

It was so infinitely cool to hang out with actor Terrence Howard during the Los Angeles press day for “Dead Man Down.” Hearing him speak was endlessly fascinating because, on top of being an actor, he is also very knowledgeable on the subjects of science and the Bible, and his intelligence has led him to make a number of interesting choices in the roles he has played. Throughout the interview, he talked about how he chose to portray crime lord Alphonse Hoyt and what the future holds for him as an actor.

Now when you hear about crime lords in movies, you usually expect actors to give scenery-chewing performances which are way over the top. But at the same time, many actors fall into the trap of making these characters seem like comic book characters as opposed to fully developed human beings. The beauty of Howard’s performance in “Dead Man Down” was that it was never over the top, and he allowed himself to portray Alphonse in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect. In his conversations with the film’s director Niels Arden Oplev (who made the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo“), Howard came to realize he wouldn’t be playing the same old crime lord we have become all too familiar with.

Terrence Howard: That man (Oplev) told me, “I’m going to change your life. I’m going to make you a bad guy that nobody has ever seen before,” and he gave me all the tools necessary to accomplish it. I think he’s a genius for that. What he did in creating these characters where all of them were compromised from the start was a beautiful, beautiful thing. There’s no good guy, there’s no bad guy in the movie. Everyone makes a crucial mistake in trying to make you pay for what you did yesterday with the resources of today.

Having seen “Dead Man Down,” I couldn’t agree with him more. Alphonse Hoyt is a bad guy, but he is also a very complex character who cannot be dismissed as a one-dimensional villain. Even the characters played by Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace are in a morally gray area as they have suffered tragedies in their own lives and are out to get revenge in the worst way possible. Howard compared the characters to another movie he co-starred in.

TH: It’s like “Crash;” everyone was a bad guy somewhere along the way. Even Ryan Phillippe’s character, who was the good guy, ends up doing something terrible at the end of it. I think that’s what cinema’s about. it’s supposed to teach you about humanity and the choices that we’re making whether it’s good or bad, and the audience can watch and hopefully gain some type of understanding of how to place the stumbling blocks of yesterday in a way on the path that they become stepping stones for those that will follow us. We are all still one person even though we see each other as separate individuals.

During the interview, Howard made it very clear to us that Alphonse was not born a bad guy. While his character leads a life of crime, we come to understand he never meant to go down the dark path that he did. This may not make any of his deeds in “Dead Man Down” forgivable, but it helps us to understand where he came from. Howard talked about how he saw the character at length and how his own personal experiences came to inform his performance.

TH: He (Alphonse) wanted to fit into society. Now mind you, he was part of a disenfranchised social group as a young black man, and in being a light-skinned black man growing up in the 70’s, black people didn’t appreciate him and didn’t like him and white people didn’t like him. When I was a kid, I was called a no nation motherfucker because I couldn’t hang out with black people and I couldn’t hang out with white people, so I had to find some type of foundation within my own family group. When I went down to Brazil, I found my family because everybody looks like me there. My character just wants to be accepted; he wants to be respected. He’s like Michael Corleone who said, “I tell you within five years we are going to be complete and above board. Just give us those five years and all of the businesses are going to be respectable.” That’s what he’s hoping, but Michael Corleone was never able to achieve that because you cannot gain peace by creating problems for someone else.

It’s natural I suppose to assume Howard based his character on another crime lord or that he did research on kingpins from history, but he actually found inspirations from other surprising sources. Among them were a story by writer Khalil Gibran and the story of King Saul and of how he had been anointed to become the King of Israel but was later denied this honor.

TH: When King Saul thought too much of himself and began to break God’s laws, King Saul had the kingdom ripped away from him. Now instead of accepting that and repenting, he fought against the anointed of Jehovah in fighting David, and therefore he had this evil spirit that was always following him, and he knew that he was going to fall and lose his place. That’s a hard place to exist in. But then Khalil Gibran told this story about the criminal, and in the story of the criminal was a young man strong of body and nature who had gone and knocked on the doors to go to work, but people told him ‘well you need education’ and they closed the doors. So, he went to the schools and they said well, you need money, and therefore he went out to beg and they said you’re a strong man, you’re lazy. So, he ended up on the top of a mountain and he looks down and is angry in his heart, and at that moment a lightning bolt strikes a tree and this club falls on him. He’s angry at God and he raises a club and says, “I asked and it was not given. Now I shall take with the strength of my arm,” and he then descended into that city and became the most notorious criminal of all time. Then two years later, a new Amir took over the city and made him the chief of his army and they dominated and desolated that city, and Khalil Gibran made a beautiful commentary that “of good men do we turn criminals out of our inhumanity towards each other. So, it was a combination of those things and a little bit of King Ahab because he refused to take direction from Jehovah also. There’s a lot of people that made Alphonse.

There are rumors Howard is thinking about retiring from acting, and this is a surprise because he still looks like he has many great performances left to give. He did not say he was going to retire, but I quickly came to respect his reasons for why he is considering it. Howard did not set out to be an actor for fame, wealth and glory, but instead to better himself as a person.

TH: I had a conversation with Sidney Poitier where I asked him, are you gonna do another movie? And he said, “No I don’t want to do an impersonation of myself anymore.” I may have 10 years left in my life and I don’t want to waste it doing something I’ve done before. If I can’t learn from a character, if I’m just going in and taking from a bag of tricks and choices, I don’t want to do it. It’s pointless for me because I have to grow as a human being and I don’t want the safe road. If I wanted the safe road I would’ve stayed working as a chemical engineer for New York when I graduated college. If I wanted the safe road I would’ve stayed in Cleveland, Ohio and been a contractor. I think I have greater things that I can contribute to the world of education and science than just as an actor. Now acting pays a lot, but I feel like I’m walking on water for tips as an actor because I know how to do it. I want to achieve my purpose as a human being and the reason I was put on this planet, so I will follow the course. As a sperm, if I knew which way to go and knew how to do it, I wouldn’t have gotten there because I would’ve been bored with it. But because I didn’t know where I had to go and I had to trust my instincts, I beat a half billion of my own brothers and sisters and hijacked my mother’s body and Terrence Howard has come to be. I like following the river as it flows.

Well, here’s hoping Terrence Howard doesn’t retire from acting for a very long time. While there is no doubt as to how smart a human being he is and of how much he can give in other areas of life, he continues to give one great performance after another. Howard also infuses each role he takes on with a strong intelligence, and it was endlessly fascinating to hear him talk about the things he knows as well as his role in “Dead Man Down.”

‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Dead Man Down’ Reunites Niels Arden Oplev with his Lisbeth Salander

Dead Man Down movie poster

The tagline for “Dead Man Down” is “revenge is coming.” But while revenge is a big theme, it’s really about forgiveness. These characters have been forever wounded by a past which will not let them be, and they spend their time trying to avenge it in order to find some form of peace in their lives. What results is a movie which doesn’t break any new ground (few movies these days do anyway), but it is still a compelling one filled with complex characters and twists I didn’t see coming.

We meet Victor (Colin Farrell), the right-hand man to ruthless New York crime lord Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), and he defends his boss in a nasty firefight at the movie’s start. Quickly, we assume Victor is as loyal to Alphonse as any gangland player could ever be and that he will soon get a meteoric rise to the top of the criminal food chain. However, it turns out Victor is actually seeking revenge against Alphonse for killing his wife and child, and he is getting closer and closer to exacting his revenge.

But then Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who lives in an apartment across from Victor’s, enters the picture. Beatrice is still recovering emotionally from a nasty car accident which has left her face permanently scarred. While the scar hasn’t taken away all her beauty, it has destroyed her self-image and left her with a deep-seated rage she is desperate to be rid of.

After a dinner where the two of them make small talk and discover things they have in common, Beatrice makes her real intentions clear to Victor; she wants him to kill the drunk driver who plowed into her car and ruined her face. Moreover, she is willing to blackmail Victor into doing this as she has evidence of him killing another man. Knowing Victor is capable of taking a life, she gives him no choice but to take another. Both have strong motivations for vengeance, but can they tear themselves away from their rage long enough to see the damage they are doing to one another?

Right from the start, “Dead Man Down” is filled with twists and turns which makes this average revenge thriller all the more entertaining to sit through. Even if the twists aren’t entirely plausible, they keep us on the edge of our seats as we can only guess what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, you don’t.

But what I really liked about this movie was how wonderfully complex the characters were. There is nothing black and white about them as everyone exists in a morally grey area. While Victor and Beatrice are clearly justified in having their revenge, we know the ways they are seeking it will do not make them good people. Even Alphonse comes across as much more than an average one-dimensional bad guy as he is someone who certainly wasn’t born evil. While certain characters may deserve some form of punishment over others, no one comes out of this story the least bit innocent.

“Dead Man Down” marks the first English language film from writer and director Niels Arden Oplev, the same man who gave us the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as well as the recent remake of “Flatliners.” Now when filmmakers from a foreign country come over to America, their talents usually get compromised in the process. But Oplev doesn’t appear to have lost any of his skill here as he gives us a strong motion picture filled with fascinating characters. He also gets terrific performances from each of his actors as well as some strong visual moments such as a descent down the middle of a stairwell.

Colin Farrell has gone from doing needless remakes like “Fright Night” and “Total Recall” to terrific movies such as “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.” He has become an actor who can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, and this makes him perfect for a character like Victor who could be seen as either. Farrell does excellent work in conveying Victor’s conflicted emotions as he goes about exacting his revenge. As he gets closer to achieving his goal, Victor begins to see how he is becoming just like those who destroyed his life. Seeing the pain in Farrell’s eyes as he makes this clear to the audience without words shows us how great of an actor he can be when given the right material.

Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander, is a powerhouse as Beatrice. Watching Rapace deal with her rage as well as the bad luck life has dealt her is enthralling to take in, and the scenes where she is attacked by a group of children who see her as a monster are devastating to witness. Like Salander, Beatrice is stuck in a moment which forever changed the course of her life, but Rapace gets to showcase more of a vulnerability here she wasn’t able to express as much in her star making performance. She remains a compelling actress to keep an eye on, and it’s great to see her reunited here with Oplev.

But I the performance which most impressed me was Terrence Howard’s as Alphonse Hoyt. Now when you see an actor take on the role of an evil crime lord, you expect them to chew the scenery and give an over the top performance. But Howard doesn’t do this here, and it is clear he has given this role a lot of thought. There is no doubt that Alphonse is an evil dude, but Howard is excellent in giving a method to this man’s madness. Howard left such a powerful impression on us with his Oscar nominated performance in “Hustle & Flow,” and his performance in “Dead Man Down” is a reminder of how he never lets us down as an actor.

In addition, there is a really good supporting performance by Dominic Cooper as Victor’s friend Darcy, and he has a wonderful scene at the start where he is holding his baby and talking about how he hopes being a father will lead him to a better future. The great Isabelle Huppert also shows up as Beatrice’s mom, Valentine, and she remains a remarkable actress even in the smallest of roles. There’s also strong cinematography from Paul Cameron and a wonderfully atmospheric film score from composer Jacob Groth to take in as well.

“Dead Man Down” is not the equal of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and its climax is a bit over the top for a movie like this, but I liked how character driven it was and you don’t see many movies like that these days. It is also a compelling story about how the power of forgiveness is more important than the need for revenge. In this day and age, it is important to remember that.

* * * out of * * * *

Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ is Wonderfully Unnerving

The Beguiled 2017 poster

Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a movie I would describe as being wonderfully unnerving. Coppola takes her precious time setting up the story to where, when the situation worsens, we are left wondering how the characters can resolve it without anyone getting hurt. In the process, as the situation everyone is involved becomes increasingly chaotic, I couldn’t help but laugh. In a drama, this can be bad as a serious story which becomes laughable means the filmmakers failed in some way, but the laughs here serve as a release because the intensity of the story reaches a fever pitch to where we are unsure of how else to react. Plus, these are the kind of laughs which stick in your throat, and this means you would not laugh at what is going on here were this any other situation.

The word beguiled means being captivated, charmed, delighted, enthralled or entranced, and we see all of this on display right from the start. The movie is based on the novel “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan which in turn was made into a movie in 1971 directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. But while Hollywood has been remake happy for far too long, we know Coppola is going to take this material and make it her own. Plus, unlike other remakes, this one does not serve as a setup for a franchise desperate to match Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

“The Beguiled” takes us back to the year 1864, three years into the Civil War, in Virginia. While picking mushrooms in the woods, a young girl comes across a wounded soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and takes him back to the boarding school she is staying at. It is a Southern girls’ boarding school which still has a few students hanging around even as many others have since gone back home, and they live a secluded lifestyle which keeps them from the front lines. Regardless, we can all hear the gunshots and explosions going off in the distance which remind us that while the danger might be far away, it could always spill over to their location at any given moment.

As John recuperates from his injuries, he gets to know the girls at the school much better. They include the headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the rather quiet Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and the teasingly playful Alicia (Elle Fanning). Time goes on, and John begins to slowly insinuate himself into the girls’ lives as he senses their needs and desires, some of which have long since been repressed. Sexual tension is definitely in the air as the ladies look longingly at John, and Edwina in particular is looking for a way to escape the secluded existence she has been trapped in, but we can all sense from the start that things will not culminate in a satisfactory solution for anyone.

What is brilliant about Coppola’s direction is how she hints at the longings of each character just from a look in their eyes. Furthermore, she is not quick to pass judgment on any of the characters to where we are left to make up our own opinions about them and their actions. Of course, how we view them ends up saying more about ourselves than it does about anyone else. Whereas Siegel’s take on “The Beguiled” may have been quick to cast John McBurney as a villain, Coppola’s version leaves you to decide this for yourself as Farrell gives us a man who is thankful for the help he has received and also unable to keep his libido in check (that’s what I think anyway).

“The Beguiled” reunites Coppola with actresses she has worked with previously. Dunst starred in her films “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette,” and Fanning co-starred in “Somewhere” when she was just 11 years old. Here, they both get to act against type in a way which makes us appreciate their talents in a way we should have already. Dunst, who has played extroverts in a beautifully gleeful way, gives us a repressed and longing performance as Edwina, and it makes us question whether the perspiration on her face is the result of humidity or her strong desires she can only hide for so long. As for Fanning, she gets to portray a young woman entering her sexually aware phase in life, and she clearly relishes in playing someone ever so eager to explore her sexuality with a man, any man.

Coppola also gets to work with Kidman who plays someone religiously stern, but even John can see the longing in heart for something different. Kidman has always been a brilliant actress, and she has not lost any of her power as this movie shows. In her scenes with Farrell, she exhibits a desire she never has to spell out for the audience, and the scene where they are face to face is a wonderfully tense scene as you wonder if they will or they won’t. And as the movie reaches its unnerving climax, it is a gas to see her the devilish look on her face as she calculates how to best deal with the school’s unwanted guest.

After all these years, Farrell remains an infinitely charismatic actor, and he seduces not just the ladies in the movie but the audience as well with what seems like relative ease. While the rest of us men struggle to attract the opposite sex, he succeeds in doing so in a way we can’t help but be infinitely resentful of. Farrell insinuates his character of John McBurney into a situation he thinks he can control, but this is a movie told from a female perspective, and it makes his predicament all the more entertaining as he attempts to gain a hold on a living situation which is far beyond his grasp.

Along with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and the fact she shot this on 35mm film, Coppola gives “The Beguiled” a smoky and beautiful look few other filmmakers could have pulled off. The ladies in their costumes look those women from Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” to where the attention to detail meshes perfectly with a dreamlike quality. The soundtrack is mostly insects and birds making noises in the humid wilderness, but it is eventually punctuated by the subtle but powerful hum of the music by Phoenix which more than hints at the tension, sexual or otherwise, which is bubbling just below the surface.

There should be no doubt by now that Sofia Coppola is a born director, and I am not just saying this because her father gave us “The Godfather” trilogy (and yes, I like the third one). She has a signature style all her own, and she pays sharp attention to both the visuals and her cast with equal measure. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise she picked up the Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

In a summer which seems beleaguered by franchise fatigue, “The Beguiled” is a nice and unnerving surprise as the suspense builds to where characters, who at once seemed a peaceful bunch, seize on their animalistic nature for the sake of survival.

* * * * out of * * * *

NOTE: “The Beguiled” has been the subject of controversy recently as Coppola decided to exclude the character of Hallie, a black slave, who was featured in the 1971 movie. As a result, she has been accused of whitewashing the story and of downplaying the role slaves had in the Civil War. Coppola has explained she did not want to present slavery in a lighthearted way and was concerned she would not be able to give the subject the attention it deserved. This seems like a sane response as it shows her sensitivity to the issue of slavery, and it would be hard to see how she could balance that out with the story of the women in a successful way here. I don’t think she is whitewashing this story in the slightest. Besides, with all the unrest in the world of American politics right now, Coppola is the last person we should be accusing of whitewashing anything.