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.
Andrew Largeman (Zach Braff) is an actor in L.A. who has been so out of it lately the only roles he's been scoring are of handicapped people as he says. This is because he has been a walking zombie since he started taking antidepressant and anger-reducing prescription drugs at the age of nine. We watch Andrew slowly come out of his lithium-induced coma on a trip back to his hometown of none other than the Garden State of New Jersey. While the reason for the trip is to attend the funeral of his depressed paraplegic mother "Large " as he's called ends up riding a roller coaster of self-discovery through encounters with old friends and new loves. Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) who appears to be Large's closest buddy is what Dave Matthews would refer to as a "gravedigger " and what the police force would refer to as a "grave robber." Mark's thievish tendencies lead him Large and their friend Sam (Natalie Portman) on a wild goose chase during which time Large opens up to discovering new things thanks to his recent sobriety and the intense connection that he's developed with Sam. The only blemish on this kooky and unique film is its cop-out cheesy ending that carelessly ties together the otherwise exceptional ends of State. But the soundtrack makes up for it.
J.D. trades in his Scrubs for a sweatshirt Natalie Portman and some serious soul-searching. We get to see a whole new side of Braff through his slightly lost character Large--and love every bit of it. The dialogue between Large and Sam is so conversational it hardly feels like you're watching a scripted film. Writer/director/actor Braff's grasp of his character and the movie as a whole shines brilliantly through every last scene. Portman no doubt received first-rate direction evident through her infusion of audacity warmth and quirkiness into her appropriately odd character Sam. She does an excellent job providing the blast of sunshine needed to lighten up Large's previously gloomy existence. Sarsgaard takes control of his character Mark as well as his costars with a Jack Black-like attitude. Despite his mother's constant nagging him to get a job he is a proud stoner slacker--portraying his disreputable hobbies even more pathetically on the big screen than one might imagine. Every character we meet in State has a distinct association with Large allowing Braff's magic to extend to each actor in the film through his unmatched acting and directing skills.
The first time's a charm: Garden State marks Zach Braff's feature writing and directorial debut. Known best as J.D. the leading role on NBC's hit series Scrubs Braff's incontestable moviemaking abilities have been exposed all at once; he apparently connected really well with his costars as they all delivered worthy performances. On the film's official site Portman describes working with Braff as "really open to collaborate efforts." Even in a scene involving the drug ecstasy at a party in which Large is seated in an unchanged position on a couch for the duration of a night the music and camera shots make it one of the most memorable scenes of the film. Clearly Braff is a gifted filmmaker and the impressive State is only the beginning.