12 posts categorized "Psychological Thriller"

March 19, 2018


Possession1One of the most diabolically indecipherable films ever made, Andrzej Żuławski's disturbing psychological thriller juxtaposes Cold War era West Berlin against an exploding relationship between a warring married couple played by Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. Exceptionally convincing performances rise to the ferociously jealous nature of Żuławski's fever-pitched script, co-written with Frederic Tuten. Supporting turns from Margit Carstensen and Heinz Bennet keep the dramatic heat high.

If ever there was an incompatible couple, Mark and Anna are it. It doesn’t help matters that they have an adolescent son named Bob who Mark unwisely turns over custody to his mentally unstable wife. Mark works as a spy for shady corporate bosses. He carries briefcases filled with cash and vials of nondisclosed liquids. This is no stay-at-home dad.

Żuławski plays with emotional, physical, mental, social, and political spaces amid West Berlin’s guarded walls. Ominous danger and grotesque discoveries lurk everywhere. The city’s simultaneously modern and ancient architecture creates a menacing sense of queasy unrest. The city’s subway allows for a shockingly violent episode of bodily expression that contributed to Isabelle Adjani’s Best Actress win at Cannes in 1981. The deeply troubling scene is one of the most frightening episodes ever captured on film.  


The duality of female nature gets thrown into forced perspective when Mark meets Anna’s [kind and sane] doppelgänger in the form of his son’s school teacher Helen (also played by Isabelle Adjani).

The division between the couple is as pronounced as the gigantic wall that divides the city. “Possession” skewers capitalism’s eternal methods of skullduggery along with the animal nature of human sexuality that, in this film, finds its level when Mark catches his wife having sex with a giant octopus.


The Polish filmmaker has famously called his movie “autobiographical,” which adds to the confusion of his only English language movie. “Possession” holds the watermark for the most bizarre cinematic experience you will ever have. No other film begins to approach the madness of romantic obsession and political oppression that this film does.

Rated R. 124 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

In episode four, Mike Lacy and I drink Flower Power IPA (Ithaca Brewing Co.) and discuss Andrzej Żuławski's 1981 psychological thriller POSSESSION. Bon appetite. 


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April 08, 2017


WAKE IN FRIGHTTed Kotcheff’s “Wake In Fright” is an unsettling, if perverse, psychological thriller unlike any other film ever made. It captures the complete mental breakdown of a character in surreal yet viscerally physical terms, while encompassing economic conditions, prejudices, and the ruthless mindset of men in Australia's lawless Outback environment.

You might detect a tinge of anti-alcohol propaganda at the core of the narrative’s existential crisis in this unpredictable adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel. Nicholas Roeg’s Cinema is the closest thing you compare to Kotcheff’s fraught social study of Australia in the late ‘50s. Desolation of the human soul comes complete with senseless killing of kangaroos.  

Gary Bond’s John Grant character is a grade school teacher chomping at the bit to escape his Government-delegated job in the remote town of Tiboonda. School is out for Christmas. A reunion with his girlfriend in Sydney promises a return to civilization.


The problem is that our unreliable protagonist gets sidetracked during a night of drinking and gambling in a mining town populated with reprobates. Grant imagines winning enough money gambling to pay off the education bond that has him teaching in the middle of nowhere. No such luck. Grant’s poor choice leads him on a bitter path toward many more decisions he soon comes to regret.

Wake In Fright2

John Grant becomes a refugee in his own country, surrounded by alcohol-fueled maniacs who usher him down a spiral of destruction. “Wake In Fright” is a masterpiece of energized social satire. The team of kangaroo hunters who take Grant along for the ride represent the same patriarchy that carry on constant wars and shove guns in civilians’ faces just to see how they handle fear. “Wake In Fright” can be taken as a command or a condition. Either way, this classic picture will make you squirm in fear.

Ted Kotcheff led a varied career that spanned four decades and many genres and styles. "Fun With Dick and Jane" (1977), "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe" (1978), "North Dallas Forty" (1979), and "Weekend at Bernies" (1989) were each box office hits. Although "Wake In Fright" died at the box office, it is a truly staggering film that represents an artistic pinnacle for Ted Kotcheff. You can see why it's his favorite of all of his films; this one is special. 

Rated R. 108 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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January 01, 2017


Nocturnal-animalsWriter-director Tom Ford’s psychological thriller is a glorified student film. Solid performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, and Michael Shannon can’t mask this film’s lacking construction and misplaced artsy embellishments that imply political commentary where no such thematic support exists. At times the movie feels like Ford is attempting to steal from David Lynch but he gets it all wrong. He goes for dark camp humor — witness a villain using a toilet attached on his secluded home’s front porch. Plop. You wouldn’t guess the script was based on a 1993 novel (“Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright).

The story involves a revenge fantasy reenacted from the pages of a novel penned by Gyllenhaal’s Edward, ostensibly to scare the crap out of his ex-wife Susan (Adams). The movie flips back and forth between Susan’s sad but wealthy life with her cheating husband (played by Armie Hammer, this generation’s Brendan Fraser), and the violent content of Edward’s pulp novel. The movie-within-the-movie is more effective than Susan’s overlying storyline but it still isn’t strong enough to stand up on its own.


Apart from some compelling suspense, “Nocturnal Animals” doesn’t give its audience anything to hang their coat on. Every composition feels overworked in a story where every plot-point leads toward a dead end. You’re glad when the movie ends but not for any sense of narrative or thematic satisfaction.

Rated R. 116 mins. (C-) (Two stars — out of five / no halves)

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May 22, 2016


ElleCannes, France —Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” is a diabolically gleeful black comedy brimming with sly social commentary and traumatically induced sexual fetishes. It is an exquisite film. The director of such instant classics as “Starship Troopers” and “Black Book” uses Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh…” as a launching pad for an erotic suspense thriller packed with thematic material regarding the thin line between sociopathic and psychopathic behavior.

Isabelle Huppert is the only actress in the world who could pull off such an incredible high-wire act, and she does it with delicious aplomb. The ubiquitous Huppert plays Michele, an anti-heroine unlike anything you’ve ever imagined. Her occupation as the head of company that creates bizarre video games is an ideal outlet for her unique set of social skills that tend to involve her voracious bi-sexual appetite.

Michele’s highly polished survival instincts derive from a trauma she suffered when she was 10 after her father went on a neighborhood killing spree that claimed 27 human victims and many animal fatalities before he returned home to Michele whose assistance he employed in burning down the family residence. Her psyche is as pre-disastered as her ego is well defended. Still, Michele is not immune to attack. After being raped by a masked intruder, Michele toughens up even more rather than involve the police. Michele’s childhood experiences with law enforcement have forever soured her from seeking assistance from Johnny law. She’d rather fantasize about exacting revenge against a rapist that she correctly presumes will return for more. Michele treats friends, family, and employees with equal ironic disdain. The effect is dark hilarity. The tone of the film aligns with Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s “Carnage,” but has a looser, more inclusive, feel to it.


Compositionally, the picture is exquisite. Director of photography Stephane Fontaine (“Rust and Bone”) provides detailed depth to Michele’s deceptively dangerous bourgeoisie surroundings. Michele’s murderous reveries take on an element of BDSM fantasy that hit dramatically composed high notes of thematic resonance.

It seems doubtful that “Elle” will win the Palme d’Or for its Cannes competition debut, but its inclusion in the festival’s grand arena sends the right message. “Elle” will confound some viewers just as “Starship Troopers” did. Michele takes no prisoners, and neither does Verhoeven in a film that flauts conventional wisdom about degrees of misogyny, feminism, sexual intrigue, and individuality. Daring, ribald, and scathing on every level, “Elle” is a movie that sets a standard that 21st century cinema should aspire to. It kicks Hollywood in the teeth without lifting a finger. Glory.

Rated R. 130 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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August 14, 2013


Dont-look-nowIt’s a wonder that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t lay claim to Daphne du Maurier’s short-story “Don’t Look Now.” Hitchcock’s successful 1963 adaptation of du Maruier’s “The Birds” proved a powerful follow-up to “Psycho” (1960). The master of suspense also adapted her novels “Jamaica Inn” and “Rebecca” into films.

Nevertheless, it was maverick British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s destiny to transform du Maurier’s strange psychological thriller into an emphatically mysterious tale of second sight and looming death in 1973. Fresh from the success of his first two films (“Performance” 1970, and “Walkabout” 1971) Roeg cast international stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a married couple coming to grips with the death of their daughter.

Roeg draws liberally from his innovative stylistic editing embellishments to infuse the narrative with visual elements that pull the viewer deeper into the story. Water, glass, mirrors, and the color red present palpable images systems of a paranormal reality. The audience is led to question the synchronistic effect of events taking place before, during, and after Roeg’s dynamic field of vision.


John Baxter (Sutherland) is an art expert living on a spacious English countryside estate with his doting wife Laura (Christie) and their young children Johnny and Christine. John studies a projected slide image of a Venice church interior where a red-hooded figure sits in the pews facing forward. A cigarette burns in an ashtray. Outside in their backyard, Christine plays near a pond dressed in a red Mackintosh rain-slicker. We view her reflected upside-down in the reflection of the pond. John spills a glass onto the projector tray, causing the red color from the hooded figure to melt across the slide like a giant drop of gathering blood. It is the moment of his daughter’s death by drowning. He runs for the pond but is too late. The red-and-white rubber ball that Christine played with floats calmly on the surface, mocking his desperate attempt to rescue his dear daughter.  


The couple sends Johnny to stay with relatives while they travel to Venice during the winter. John has accepted a commission from a local bishop to assist in restoring an ancient Catholic church. John’s and Laura’s atheism isn’t an issue, or is it?

While lunching together in their hotel’s restaurant Laura faints after assisting two elderly sisters, Heather and Wendy — one of whom is blind. The sisters claim to be psychic. They tell Laura that her daughter is with her, and attempting to communicate from beyond the grave. They later invite Laura to a séance in order to connect with Christine. A warning is given that John is in danger in spite of his own second sight ability. An air of death hangs over everything. A serial killer is at large in the tiny Venice alleyways.


The film’s celebrated centerpiece sex scene between John and Laura — artfully intercut with them getting dressed — momentarily anchors the story in a way that later dramatizes the its theme of unexplained loss. John and Laura take two divergent but intersecting paths toward attaining closure in a mystery that must remain open.

Rated R. 110 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 30, 2013

Side Effects

Side-effectsSoderbergh’s Swan Song: 
Big Pharma as the Ultimate MacGuffin

Steven Soderbergh’s last feature before his retirement from the movies (he'll still do theater and TV) is a milestone psychological thriller comparable to Hitchcock’s best work. Operating with a deft screenplay by recent collaborator Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion”), Soderbergh works the suspense-driven narrative through fits of satire and protagonist-switcheroos that keep the audience off-balance until the film’s final revelation.

A master of mood, the filmmaker who broke the independent film standard open in 1989 with his provocative “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” takes advantage of expressive lighting and Dutch camera angles to draw the viewer into lead character Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) depression. Like Hitchcock, Soderbergh guides the audience where he wants us to focus. First he earns our trust. Then he shows us that what we think we know is a lie. Next he imposes an emphasis, where we are allowed to believe even more strongly in new assumptions we are led to buy into. Layers of ambiguity fill “Side Effects” like in a carefully crafted crime novel. For what it's worth, Soderbergh deserves brownie points for crafting one of the best trailers in recent memory. Nothing is given away.

Emily’s hunky husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is freshly out of prison for insider trading, yet nothing can keep Emily’s blues at bay. A troubling “accident” puts Emily in the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). No other actor would have been better cast to play a character as fraught with ethical challenges and simmering inner turmoil. Dr. Banks puts Emily on an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor); sadly the pills fail to achieve their desired effect of quelling her suicidal, and even homicidal, thoughts.

The movie raises ethical questions about how pharmaceutical companies market, test, and sell their wares. The film’s title sets up expectations about undesirable symptoms that can lead to death. But what begins as a diatribe against Big Pharma morphs into a battle of wits between Dr. Banks and his strangely motivated patient.

Here is a film that plays two thematic sides against the middle. Caught in a spiraling depression, Emily is a victim of her own mind. She is desperate and unpredictable. Her family-man doctor is caught up in his own struggle to stay above water financially by taking on more patients and by whoring himself out participate in high-paying clinical trials for new mind-altering meds with unknown side effects. Both characters are working an imperfect system to benefit their own agendas. Big Pharma’s position as one of the biggest profit-producing models operating under modern capitalism naturally makes it subject to all kinds of blind angles for opportunists of various stripes to make their fortunes. Causalities are of little concern until the media gets involved.

Catherine Zeta-Jones turns in an impressive bit of acting as the last shrink to look after Emily before Dr. Banks takes over. There are plenty of twists and surprises in “Side Effects” to keep you guessing. The first real movie of 2013 has arrived. Repeated viewings may be necessary.

Rated R. 105 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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October 18, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene - NYFF 2011

Martha-marcy-may-marlene"Work-shopped in a Sundance writing and directing lab" proves to be the kiss of death for an overwrought and underdeveloped psychological thriller that refuses to either poop or get off the pot. Newbie writer/director Sean Durkin wears his obsession with Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke on his snot-covered sleeve. Evidently they don't teach that flashbacks are a bad idea at NYU film school—where Durkin attended--or at Sundance since exactly half of Durkin's story is told using the most common crutch in narrative existence.

Durkin has an ace up his sleeve in newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, whose beguiling nubility and haunting mood shifts the filmmaker milks for all they’re worth. Olsen plays the title character whose name Martha gets transmogrified to Marcy Mae by a creepy cult leader named Patrick (John Hawkes) who feeds on the flesh of his mostly female clan on a remote farm commune in the Catskills. Martha's "Marlene" identity is the least explained, and is left dangling along with every other plot thread the filmmakers bother to create.

Martha runs away from the commune at the beginning of the story. She calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who she hasn't been in touch with for two years, to come pick her up. Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) take Martha into their spacious riverside home in Connecticut. Martha displays odd behaviors such as skinny dipping in broad daylight and crawling in bed with Ted and Lucy while they're having sex. She doesn’t believe in such capitalist traps as pursuing a career. She holds onto firm but unstated beliefs about “the right way to live.”

Flashbacks reveal Martha's rape at the hands of Patrick, and her indoctrination as a "leader and teacher" at the commune. The filmmaker constantly jockeys back and forth between Martha's increasingly problematic situation with Lucy and Ted, and her not so distant past that informs her subconscious and conscious mind. Martha is an unreliable protagonist the audience is tempted to side with in spite of her volatile personality. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" comes across as an extreme right-wing fantasy about the leftist mind. If we take Martha, as the filmmakers seem to intend, to represent the kind of person engaged in the global protests against savage corporate greed then we are forced to admit that they are emotionally disturbed sociopathic human beings. The big problem with the movie is the filmmakers forgot to tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Rated R. 101 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)

October 03, 2011

Dream House

Dream-house-movie-poster How the mighty have fallen. Director Jim Sheridan (the gifted filmmaker behind such gems as "In the Name of the Father" and "The Boxer") helms this psychological thriller with no sense of terror or suspense. If it weren't for its talent-loaded cast, there would be no compelling element to make the film remotely watchable. Daniel Craig plays Will Atenton, a family man who quits his high-powered day job to focus on a career as a novelist. Will's doting wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) loves the idea of having her perfect hubby around their new suburban home to help look after their button-cute daughters Dee Dee and Trish. It's the dead of winter. Considerable snowfall helps hide the identity of a mysterious man encircling the family home with malice. At one point the lurker tries to run Will over with his car in the drive way. Local cops are useless. Essential answers are never provided.

An ill-conceived script by wanna-be hack screenwriter David Loucka puts a ridiculous plot-breaking revelation in the middle of the movie. A family was murdered in the Atenton house. Local teens like to revel in satanic games in the basement—under the noses of the Atenton family. Will Atenton isn't who he thinks he is. He might be Peter Ward, the killer who murdered his own family years ago—the family of Will Atenton. Crazy is as crazy does. Will isn’t the character we’ve been introduced to, or is he? Across-the-street neighbor Ann Patterson (Naomi Watts) comes around. She’s nice enough, but knows more than she’s telling Will about the abandoned house Will or Peter used to call home. Wilco-foxtrot-tango? Inept flashback sequences and underdeveloped subplots add up to a third act climax of no emotional import. Some scripts should never be made into movies. This is one of them.

Rated PG-13. 91 mins. (D-) (Zero Star - out of five/no halves)

September 28, 2011

Take Shelter

Take-shelter Apocalypse looms large in writer/director Jeff Nichols’s intimate tale of social, mental, and economic duress. The most inward-gazing of 2011's trilogy of apocalypse films, which also include Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" and Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter" is a moody psychological thriller of epic proportions. Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is a construction worker living in rural Ohio with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young hearing-impaired daughter Hannah. Curtis reads a worst-case scenario into foreboding cloud formations he sees. He also suffers from terrifying nightmares, about a coming storm, which cause him to wet the bed. Torn over whether his family's history of mental illness has made its way into his brain—his mother is schizophrenic--Curtis seeks out counseling. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast for his powerful ability to portray characters teetering on the brink of insanity. When Curtis takes out a loan from the bank that precludes his daughter's scheduled medical procedure to correct her hearing problem, the sense of Curtis’s desperation becomes palpable. He uses the funds to expand an underground storm shelter using a giant shipping container. A carefully modulated study into the psychology of fear and premonition, “Take Shelter” captures a macro-micro snapshot of America’s post-9/11 zeitgeist at a moment when a decade of fear fatigue has left the country numb. When everyone is seeking shelter from economic, natural, and human-implemented disaster, no place is safe.

Rated R. 120 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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