6 posts categorized "Psychological Thriller"

March 25, 2014


Jacob's LadderNearly a decade before audiences chatted about the “surprise” ending of “The Sixth Sense” as though it were a big deal, Adrian Lyne’s psychological thriller left its audience too depleted to speak. “Jacob’s Ladder” is a terrifying film, a devastating experience people try to forget, rather than bring up at parties.

Tim Robbins plays Jacob Singer, a lanky Vietnam War veteran who suffers from hallucinations. Many times, his whole life — complete with a romantic relationship to a beautiful woman — seems questionable. By day, Jacob works for the post office in New York City with his live-in girlfriend Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña). On the subway he reads a dog-eared copy of Camus’s absurdist novel “The Stranger,” about a man who doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. Flashbacks from his wartime experiences with his troop haunt him, as do remembrances of a failed marriage that ended after their young son was run over on his bicycle.


Tim Robbins sums up his bedeviled character with a delicate balance of intelligence and fog. He’s like a wounded puppy the audience wants to help. However, people and things are out to get Jacob. He’s almost run over by a subway car. A carload of men tries to run him down. Weird demons appear at the fringes of his vision.

A visit to his sympathetic chiropractor Louie (Danny Aiello) finally helps alleviate the nagging confusion and physical pain that Jacob suffers. When Jacob slips into a 106 fever, Jezzie and his apartment’s neighbors bring ice to pour on his scalding body in the bathtub.


Adrian Lyne masterfully coordinates the way the audience experiences Jacob’s knotted state so that there is ebb and flow to the way the exposition mounts. The audience has to time to think between excruciating sequences of suspense.

Jacob’s ever-revealing flashbacks prompt him to reconnect with the other surviving members of his company. They too suffer from ghastly hallucinations. Vague memories of a violent attack in the Vietnam jungle demand answers. Jacob and his Army buddies decide to request an investigation into the mysterious event that ended their service, but inexplicably back out after meeting with an attorney.


Is Jacob’s post-traumatic stress disorder a symptom or a cause? Is, or was, Jacob a lab rat in a government experiment à la the CIA’s LSD trials? Are any of Jacob’s friends really on his side, or are they all in on a plot to ruin him? These and many other big questions proliferate a movie about war and human life from a well-informed perspective that sees through the miasma of social distractions that the media and history pile on.

The ending to “Jacob’s Ladder” has long been cause for confusion to critics and filmgoers alike. You can’t watch the film without getting involved.

Rated R. 116 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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March 15, 2010



Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.


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Swedish Exploitation Mystery
Stieg Larsson Gets Posthumously More Famous
By Cole Smithey

ColeSmithey.comThe first film adaptation of the late Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson's posthumously published "Millennium Trilogy," "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is an enigmatic mystery thriller fired by the growling intensity of its goth-girl heroine Lisbeth Salander (ferociously played by Noomi Rapace).

Although the large dragon tattoo that covers her back is never directly addressed in the film, the Asian symbol of primordial vengeance lurks gracefully at the frayed dark edges of every scene. Lisbeth is a freelance computer hacker/activist who comes to the aid of financial journalist/magazine editor Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) whose efforts at exposing corporate corruption have resulted in a prison sentence for libel.


In the months before abdicating his freedom, Blomkvist is hired by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to solve the 40-year-old mystery of his niece Harriet's disappearance from the family's island estate when she was 16 during a family gathering. Lisbeth has been keeping tabs on Blomkvist's computer activities for a client, and finds herself in the unlikely position of teaming up with Mikael to solve the mystery of Harriet Vanger, whose vanishing seems connected to other such similar cases in the area over several generations. Following in the same vein as "The Red Riding Trilogy," here is an infectiously compelling mystery brimming with intriguing characters and plenty of twists and turns.


"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is a sophisticated piece of exploitation cinema that announces its identity as such early on. Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) is the newly appointed attorney responsible for doling out financial support to Lisbeth. During their initial meeting, Nils makes it clear that Lisbeth is expected to perform certain favors in exchange for any additional spending money she might need. Poor Nils should know better than mess with such an obviously badass chic, but he rapes her anyway. Soon the phallus is on the other foot, and director Niels Arden Oplev takes great satisfaction in rewarding Lisbeth with her quick and just revenge. Definitely not for the squeamish, the over-the-top scene takes on a camp quality as Nils is more than paid back in kind.


With such genre formalities out of the way, the film sets about tackling skeletons in the closet of the Vangers, a rich family of Swedish industrialists. As the wealthy former head of his family's companies, Henrik Vanger offers to help with Mikael's legal problems and flailing magazine if he will unravel the mystery surrounding his niece under a pretense of writing about the family history. With more than a passing reference to "Blow Up," Lisbeth and Mikael tear into the case from a guest house on Hedeby Island where rival family members still live. The sleuthing duo examine photographs of Harriet just before she vanished with a fine tooth comb of modern technology.


The possibility that Harriet is looking directly at her abductor in a photo taken during a parade fills the film with a ripe brand of suspense. The fetishistic experience of searching for clues where none have been found before serves as a major hook that contributes to the romantic connection that builds between Lisbeth and the much older Mikael.


Although the film's violent set-piece climax is drawn out to comic proportions, and the final tableau rings with a false note of commercial satisfaction, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is a beautifully crafted thriller that kicks you in the head, heart, and libido with equal force.

(Music Box Films) Not Rated. 152 mins.

4 StarsModern Cole

Cozy Cole

Cole Smithey on Patreon

October 26, 2009



Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This ad-free website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon. Thanks a lot pal! Your generosity keeps the reviews coming!

Cole Smithey on Patreon


Savoring von Trier
The Best Horror Film of the Last 30 Years
By Cole Smithey

ColeSmithey.comLars von Trier is a true poet of cinema. He has a painterly eye for composition — formal, surrealistic, and radical.

In a natural setting of a remote cabin named Eden, hidden deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, von Trier scorches his dark mark with one of the most shocking horror films of the past 30 years.

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The Danish filmmaker creates a tense and provocative collage of death, brutality, psychotherapy, and sexual desire, with the fury of Mother Nature. A symphony of simultaneous madness afflicting the females of various species of animals parallels the mental deterioration of a wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) after the death of her son, who fell out a window while the couple was making love.

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Willem Dafoe, as her therapist husband, tries to head off his wife's teetering nervous breakdown with therapy exercises and goal-oriented exercises that amplify her fear of staying "in the woods." His insistence that they go on the retreat to face her fears, thus healing her mental breakdown, her leads to all sorts of symbolically evil events that surround Gainsbourg as a sexually aggressive and violent woman.

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Von Trier toys with implying an archetypal status to the husband, referred to only as "He," and Gainsbourg's character, credited as "She." "He" is a logical person, who substitutes the remorse he feels for the loss of his child with curing his deeply disturbed wife even if such an effort contradicts obvious ethical concerns for his professional duty as a psychoanalyst that should prevent him from treating a member of his own family. "She," on the other hand, places an inordinate importance on sex as a way of distancing herself from the result of the activity that was responsible for bringing her son into the world and for inadvertently casting him out.

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After its press screening at the New York Film Festival, I asked von Trier about the implications of the film's biblical references, such as naming the couple's isolated retreat "Eden" and an oblique reference to "Satan." The candid filmmaker replied that if anything it was to reject the existence of God.

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Von Trier has publicly discussed his battle with depression that led to writing "Antichrist" as a kind of self-therapy before filming the movie with a lazy approach that took full advantage of employing free association to add or augment scenes. The auteur sites Strindberg as an influence, and you can recognize it in von Trier's formal distillation of social and personal ideas. "Antichrist" is broken into three stages, "Grief," "Pain," and "Despair." But the terms play so loosely with the action of each act that the superseding action on display challenges the audience to equate the horrors on-screen with traumatic events in their own lives. 

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Like Luis Bunuel, von Trier works from a rich subconscious narrative landscape where adult fears and fantasies are played out beyond their illogical parameters. Where a film like "The Exorcist" works on a corollary algorithm pitting good against evil, von Trier embraces the cruelty of nature, with its psychological frailty and physical vulnerability pressed hard to the fore. That he does so within an intimate romantic context that calls into play furious aspects of sadomasochistic sexuality that fire the film into an area of implacable volatility. 

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"Antichrist" is a demanding film that pushes its dark ideas and exaggerated situations through a dialectic of carefully guided precepts and stark visual cues. As with Alfred Hitchcock, Lars von Trier deploys a direct cinematic language that allows the audience to trust in his mastery of filmic art, as well as his ability to gross them out without breaking their confidence.


Lars von Trier is a master filmmaker on a mission to fragment reality. His exploration into the genre of horror has given us a film far more frightening than anything Hollywood would ever allow. As with all of von Trier's films, there's some Dogme (the filmmaking manifesto that he co-wrote) for the audience to chew on. If "Antichrist" is the "most important film of von Trier's career," as he has stated, then there is all the more reason to savor it.

Rated R. 109 mins. 

5 Stars

Cozy Cole

Cole Smithey on Patreon

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