In the last seven years Denzel Washington has paired with director Tony Scott on four hyperkinetic ultra-saturated feature films: Man on Fire Deja Vu The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. When he strays from the time-honored action collaboration you'd think the man would take a break from the format. Not so—as Washington's new film Safe House clearly demonstrates.
Daniel Espinosa director of the acclaimed Swedish crime drama Snabba Cash shoots his espionage thriller with Scott-ian flair complete with rapid camera movement a palette of eye-scorchingly bright colors and fragmented editing. If Safe House was emotionally compelling the stylistic approach might make the narrative sizzle—but the script is as simple and familiar as they come: Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a CIA agent with a monotonous gig. He's a safe housekeeper tasked with maintaining a stronghold in South Africa in case the feds need to stop by for some…interrogating. After a year of begging for field work and keeping the joint tidy Weston finds himself embroiled in the investigation of Tobin Bell (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA notorious for selling information on the black market. A group of agents bring Bell in to Weston's safe house for a routine waterboarding but everything is thrown into chaos when the lockdown is infiltrated by machine-wielding baddies looking to put a bullet in Bell's head. To keep the captor alive Weston goes on the run with Bell in hand…never knowing exactly why everyone wants the guy dead.
The setup for Safe House provides Washington and Reynolds two fully capable action stars to do their thing and to do it well. The two characters have their own defining characteristics that each actor bites off with ferocity: Reynolds' Weston is a man drowning in circumstance built to kick ass but still out of his league and just hoping to get back to his gal in one piece. Bell has years of experience boring into the heads of his opponents and Washington plays him with the necessary charisma and confidence that make even his most despicable characters a treat to watch.
But the duo fight a losing battle in Safe House contending with the script's meandering action and ambiguous stakes that turn the Bourne-esque thriller into a grueling experience. Much of the movie is an extended chase scene where the object of the bad guys' desire is never identified. It's a mystery!—but the lack of info comes off as confusing. Safe House cuts back and forth between the compelling relationship between Weston and Bell and a war room full of exceptional actors (Vera Farmiga Brendan Gleeson and Sam Shepherd) given nothing to do but spurt straightforward backstory and typical "there's no time Mr. ______!" exclamatory statements. Caking it is Espinosa's direction which lacks any sense of coherent geography. The action is never intense because you have no idea who is going where and when and why.
Safe House is a competently made movie with enough talent to keep it afloat but without any definable hook or dramatic emphasis it plays out like an undercooked version of the Denzel Washington/Tony Scott formula. Which is unfortunate as four solid ones already exist.
Novelist Richard Yates tried for years to bring his 1961 story of marital trouble in ‘50s suburbia to the screen but died before seeing it finally come to fruition in the form of this scorching adaptation by writer Justin Haythe. April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are young marrieds living what appears to be the ideal life in the Connecticut of the 1950s. He has a nice job she is a mother of two with dreams of an acting career. But beneath the surface is a lingering dissatisfaction with their lives; Frank is having an affair with an office worker (Zoe Kazan) and April is terribly unhappy with the way her life is turning out. They engage in ferocious arguments constantly disproving the idea they are the perfect couple. One day April decides the answer to all their problems is to move to Paris and start over. Frank initially agrees but the relationship goes downhill even further from there and things spiral out of control. Revolutionary Road’s brilliant ensemble ignites and delivers on just about every level imaginable. Kate Winslet who seemingly can do no wrong these days is heartbreakingly good as a housewife who foreshadows the feminist movement. Her April is an ambitious confused woman tragically living a couple of beats ahead of her time. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his finest film performance as a man who knows he is not living up to his potential but seems to be in a state of denial trying almost pathetically to keep what’s left of his marriage and family together. It’s the subtext and unspoken words between them that really give power to these tremendously effective performances. After the first 10 minutes you will be so mesmerized by their raw naked acting you will forget you are watching the two young stars who first appeared together in Titanic a decade earlier. Kathy Bates as a cheerful real estate agent with her own family problems is also quite good as is Michael Shannon as her disturbed grown son who seems to know more about the sad state of the Wheelers home life than anyone realizes. He should be a frontrunner for the supporting actor Oscar if there is any justice. Also blending in nicely are Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour as neighbors who are the polar opposite of Frank and April. Sam Mendes who won an Oscar for directing yet another stinging view of suburbia with his Oscar-winning American Beauty does another great job of bringing out the essence of what Yates says about a generation hiding behind a façade of happiness but living on the cusp of great profound social change. Mendes lets long dialogue scenes play out packing them with riveting moments. His filmmaking style should be savored for the insights it provides and the emotional challenges it presents. Mendes also manages to get an extraordinary portrayal of suburban angst from his real-life wife Winslet. Not since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton battled so brazenly in 1966’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has there been a wounded couple’s marriage so deeply and poignantly exposed on screen.
Don Johnston (Murray)--yes he often gets the allusion to Melanie Griffith's ex but he's tired of hearing it by now--has just been left by yet another girlfriend (Julie Delpy). He doesn't really mind one way or the other. In fact he doesn't have much emotion towards any aspect of his life except for perhaps lying on the couch watching his TV and listening to his offbeat music. Even when receives an anonymous letter in the mail from an ex-lover telling him that he has a now-grown son he shrugs it off. But once his quasi-sleuth neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) gets wind of this he spurs Don on to investigate further. And so the journey begins with Don embarking on a cross-country trek to find the writer of the letter. He revisits his old flames: a widow (Sharon Stone) who's raising a daughter (aptly) named Lolita; an animal communicator (Jessica Lange) with a thriving "practice"; a rather sterile real estate agent (Six Feet Under's Frances Conroy) who's loath to recall her past; and a country bumpkin (Tilda Swinton) resistant to Don's inquiries. Fed up and weary Don returns home to his comfortable misery much to Winston's dismay. But a chance encounter around town sends Don spinning in circles waking him up for the first time in eons.
Much has been said about the minimalist acting in Flowers. That could be because there is actually minimal acting in the film. Instead the focus is on what's not spoken. What's between the lines the dynamics between the characters and what's going on internally--and Murray is brilliant at it. The actor is at his deadpan-best. The neo-Murray embodies everything this man's past has reduced him to--without having to actually rehash said past. Of course we hate to say this since we've been disappointed in the past but Murray may get another good shot at winning his sought-after Oscar. As his partner in crime the always dazzling Wright (HBO's Angels in America)--the Stanley Kubrick of actors who chooses roles that will not compromise his artistic integrity--provides all the overt comedy and interactions we might have expected from Murray. It's a flawless performance. As Don's four ex-flames the actresses' collective screen time are short but necessarily succinct. Most noteworthy among them is Swinton a native Brit who is utterly unrecognizable as Don's backwoods ex.
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch is truly in a class of his own. The auteur with highly eclectic tastes who is also revered in the indie cult community puts out movies few and far between. But he's always prided himself on the fact his films such as Coffee and Cigarettes and Stranger Than Paradise are limited only to his arthouse devotees. Yet with Flowers there has been some trepidation from even his most faithful that this film may be his most mainstream to date. Heaven forbid! It still doesn't detract from the film's brilliance. As with most of Jarmusch's pieces Flowers' central core is discovering the beauty in the mundane. And anyone who thinks Jarmusch may have sold out will be put into their places after seeing the film's most-divisive climax--an ending that is far from the cut-and-dry sweetness to most audiences are accustomed. The writer-director also demonstrates an uncanny ability to tap into Murray's dry sense of humor and cynical outlook on life better than other director. Having previously worked together in Cigarettes we can only hope that the collaboration of Murray and Jarmusch becomes the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton of indie world.