David Twohy’s “A Perfect Getaway” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

SPOILER WARNING. You’ll want to watch this one first.

“It’s only two more miles to the beach, right? I think we have to ride this thing out. Keep Nick talking. Keep him thinking he’s going to be the star of some Hollywood movie. Keep them both happy so that everybody gets to the beach alive. But we keep our game face on. Do not let them know that anything is wrong here.
…do you understand me? Hey, do you understand me?”

―”I just thought we were gonna have a real honeymoon.”

The twist got me, and that’s not nothing. Ever since M. Night Shyamalan made (and then destroyed) a career on the very concept of a third-act twist, other films have only occasionally popped in to remind us that “Everything you just saw was a lie” isn’t the only way to handle these things. A Perfect Getaway is clever – perhaps too clever for its own good at times, but the twist is only the beginning of its appeal. The film maintains a baseline simmer of tension, with the threat of a pair of brutal murders on Oahu (with the murderers rumored to have hopped over to Kauai, where the film takes place) hanging over it at all times, but it’s also eminently playful. Its joviality is embodied in couple #2, Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez), who – apart from being over-the-top rednecks in love, seem basically harmless. Or are they? Nick seems purpose-built to prod the fourth wall, discussing screenwriting conventions openly with screenwriter Cliff (Steve Zahn), and coming very close to winking at the camera and calling himself a “red snapper“, a term he defines as “a character you bring in just to fuck with the audience”. And fuck he does. He drags Cliff out into the bush, ostensibly for an impromptu goat-hunt, but quickly reveals that they’re actually hunting people – a pair that he spotted following them, doubling back, and hiding. Then he confronts Cliff about his suspicions, casting them as entirely reasonable, since – if Nick were the killer, he wouldn’t stay on Oahu either. He’d come right here. As Cliff wanders off to hatch a plan involving their two camp followers, Nick shrugs offscreen and hunts a goat anyway, returning to camp covered in blood with a hilariously creepy look on his face. As Gina casually butchers it (citing, with an adorable Southern twang, her summer in the meat department at the Piggly Wiggly), we see Cliff and Cyd (Milla Jovovich) give each other a wary look, and the film all but encourages you to be suspicious of these new friends with alarmingly proficient knife skills. And are they murderers, or do they just possess a particular set of talents purpose-built to trigger the libs? It’s hard to say in Gina’s case, since she has just enough dialogue to convey that she has a clever head on her shoulders and doesn’t suffer friendly, disarming anecdotes, preferring to hear people tell the truth about themselves. She also repeatedly says that Nick is “really hard to kill,” which is a totally normal thing to say. Conversely, Nick spends most of the film spinning one yarn or another about his skills as a former Spec-Ops “American Jedi”, including storming Saddam’s palace and finding a secret trove of Silver Age Marvel Comics, before getting blown up with an antipersonnel mine and getting his skull rebuilt with titanium, which, if true, seems like it’ll be an asset later in the film. We all knew a Nick in high school, but regardless of this one’s true motivations, the film leaves little doubt as to whether he actually is such a thing, even if it keeps it nice and vague whether he’ll effortlessly kill for good or for evil.

The third couple, Cleo and Kale – played by Marley Shelton and some obscure Australian surfer bro – are a bit less subtle. For a start, they’re gross, angry hippies with scary tattoos, they make bombastic speeches about people dying for their sins, and at least one of them has apparently jumped parole from California. When they have an initial encounter with a reluctant Cliff and Cyd who pull over to pick up the hitchhikers, Kale lets his unmotivated rage become a nice distraction from the delicate tonal and verbal dance that the official couple starts exhibiting, as they will do many times throughout the film. Cliff and Cyd are, by all appearances, a newly minted husband and wife, and they’re being thoroughly gross and romantic about it, even when there’s no audience for it but each other. Cliff, whose real name is Rocky, encourages Cyd, whose real name is never revealed, to keep her game face on. This is a recurring line throughout the film even after their true nature is revealed, and each tense but extremely vague conversation that this pair engages in deliberately disguises murderous scheming as ordinary suspicion and reticence. And it works well. I haven’t seen a movie this enamored of its own cleverness since Lucky Number Slevin, but for whatever reason, this one delights me. I can just picture how giddy writer/director David Twohy must have been as he wrote Cyd holding up a photo of the two hippies, saying, “Hey baby, look, it’s Kale and Cleo getting married on Oahu.” Cliff sarcastically muses, “Suitable for framing.” BUT HE MEANS THE HUMANS, NOT THE PHOTO, AND HE MEANS “FRAMING” AS IN “FOR THE MURDERS THAT HE AND CYD COMMITTED”. I really wanted to scoff at this. I wanted to roll my eyes when it was explicitly called out in the (slightly overlong) black-and-white twist montage later in the film. But sometimes a clever thing really is a clever thing, and sometimes you just have to let this man kill you with his teacup. This also seemed to be Cyd’s intended meaning, disguising her targeting of another pair of freshly identified newlyweds as coming around on giving the slightly creepy pair a ride. This is an important detail, since Cyd’s later reticence would make it easy to assume that she’s not a fully culpable participant in the criminal conspiracy the pair is engaged in. But she clearly is. She’s not Patty Hearst. She’s Bonnie Parker. And in light of the film’s ending, the specter of Cyd getting away with being a full-on serial murderer is genuinely disturbing.

What’s particularly effective about the reveal is the false one that happens first. The morning after the Goat Incident, a Kauai County Police chopper buzzes overhead and orders everyone on the trail out of their tents so they can see each of their smiling faces. In a clearing up ahead, the chopper has landed, and we see Kale and Cleo getting thrown to the ground and arrested. They curse and are dragged away, and the film goes so far as to show us an Altoid-tin full of human teeth in one of their bags. The killers are caught! Roll credits. We’re an hour into this film, and all of a sudden the tension has been released, and all that’s left is for the four remaining characters to become fast friends and enjoy the rest of their couples vacation. This would obviously be an absurd ending to a thriller, and I really have to applaud the film for not overplaying its hand here, because only 5 minutes pass before the true reveal. And it’s not like I actually thought the movie was over at this point, but I certainly had an abiding feeling of, “Well…what now?”, and it’s nice when a film lets that off-kilter feeling simmer for a moment (Gone Baby Gone is the MVP in this arena), before revealing exactly why. The four arrive at Hanakāpīʻai Beach, and Cliff suddenly takes the thread of the plot for a change, demanding that Nick accompany him on an impromptu kayak trip to some nearby sea caves, having sublet a pair of boats from some tourists. Nick reluctantly agrees, and Gina, who has been briefly left alone with the group’s gear, picks up Cliff and Cyd’s camcorder. She switches from video to stills, and begins scanning through their wedding photos, and…sees something that scares her half to death. She runs to the beach and waves frantically for Nick to return, but he’s already out of earshot, and assures her he’ll be back for sunset. She tears off down the trail to try and intercept them, and Cyd picks up the camcorder. And we see…the real Cliff and Cyd, the couple that they murdered and replaced back on Oahu.

Cliff and Nick paddle into the cave. Cliff toys with his quarry a bit, feeding back some of the SpecOps lingo that he mentioned earlier, before snapping his glasses in half, and pulling a gun. He thanks Nick for his stories, assures him he intends to steal his identity, then…shoots him in the head. A flood of black-and-white Cliff’s Notes ensues. Since I watched the unrated director’s cut this time, I’m unsure how much of this was in the theatrical release, but in addition to a laboriously detailed confessional of how they killed the couple on Oahu and assumed their identities, appearance, and vocal mannerisms, we also see them have a chance encounter with Nick and Gina, who briefly take the narrative ball and show us their entire romantic backstory (including some brief engagement ring fuckery at a jewelry store). It’s very sweet, and is quite the acting showcase for Sanchez, but I really am conflicted on how appropriate this little short film and tonal diversion really is. Functionally, it raises the stakes for the pair, whom we’re now meant to see as the protagonists of the film, but we did ostensibly just watch one of them get murdered, and this feels a bit like twisting the knife. But we cut back to Cliff/Rocky lecturing Cyd about his rules, and it’s the closest we get to an explanation for what they truly are. This is a folie à deux – a tiny, narcissistic cult with Rocky as its leader, and with Cyd (or whatever her real name was) as the “privileged witness” who gets to help him lead a hundred different lives, and “keep this whole C-minus world always playing catch-up”. Cyd, meanwhile, is starting to like her current skin, and is starting to feel the pathetic inadequacy of her psychopathic boyfriend’s version of romance: “How many times do I need to tell you? If there’s anyone in this world that I could love, it’s you. Why is that never enough?” He finally settles on, “I love the idea of loving you,” before they light up a crystal meth pipe. Cliff raises a finger-gun, and we gunshot-smash-cut back to the present day.

As Nick tumbles, head-shot, into the water, Gina has arrived above, and screams (and narrowly dodges a few more shots from the cave below). Cyd arrives, and the two women have a brutal brawl up top. Gina cracks her head on a rock and takes a knife to the thigh for her trouble, but manages to hurtle Cyd bodily over the cliff. I won’t recap every moment of the twenty-minute cat-and-mouse struggle that ensues, but it’s some delightfully bonkers stuff that starts with a sales call from AT&T to Gina’s phone, continues with some creepy walkie-talkie dynamics as Cliff creeps up on her, and continues with Nick emerging from the water, thoroughly alive, tacking the flesh over his titanium skull back together with a hat-band, ready to hunt people for a second time as the film’s hero. This is when Twohy and cinematographer Mark Plummer go properly insane, adding in both slow-mo and split-screen to give the whole thing a real comic-book feel as we finally learn what movie we’re in. And this is when Steve Zahn has a chance to go full evil. You want to know what full evil looks like? Like this:

A Perfect Getaway stuck with me more than my original 6.5/10 review made me expect. It certainly held lingering appeal as a thing I show people so I could watch them experience the twist. I’ve done this enough times in the past decade to make me think that perhaps it’s time to sub this one in for The Usual Suspects, which has a bit too much overdue baggage, and whose spoiler is basically a punchline by now. I also love the tonal dance that it performs. For something that could be as ugly and dour as The Devil’s Rejects (which I appreciated on its own terms), this is a beautiful and aggressively chipper film. While the film occasionally subbed in Puerto Rico and Jamaica as filming locations, Kauai does appear as itself in the film, and it definitely nudged me and my wife in the direction of Hawaii (albeit a different island) for our honeymoon. It also assured that we were thoroughly vulnerable to an upsale rental of a Jeep Wrangler, even though we had zero intention of off-roading or hiking. This is exactly the sort of escapist adventure that I expected from Rogue Pictures, a constantly moribund production label that has bounced around under varied ownership since it first released Orgazmo in 1998, and has been responsible for some of the most original, bizarre, and talked-about films since, including Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Catfish…as well as Season of the Witch, My Soul to Take and Movie 43. Can’t win em all. But it survived the 2015 bankruptcy of its then-parent Relativity Media, released one sequel last year, and seems determined to carry its sometimes-admirable legacy of schlock into the future. And bless them for it.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen A Perfect Getaway, I hope you didn’t just read this. But if you need your Twohy fix, I guess you’ve got another Riddick to look forward to, before I perhaps try my hand at a 20YA retrospective on Waterworld next year.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Advertisements

Breck Eisner’s “The Crazies” – Another horror remake? And it’s GOOD?!

Breck Eisner’s The Crazies is the tale of Ogden Marsh, an idyllic Iowa farming community exposed to a biological agent that turns the townspeople turn uncontrollably violent. And I won’t bury the lead on this… It’s one hell of a ride. A deliberate pace, ratcheting sense of doom, and awesome use of setpieces make this an extremely effective horror film. In fact, the last time I had this much fun with a horror remake was with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead, and from the outset, this film has some stark similarities. It’s another remake of a 70s Romero film featuring another dark Johnny Cash song (in an amusing nod to Dr. Strangelove), and two of the main characters are a cop and a doctor. We get the briefest glimpse at their normal lives, and then all hell breaks loose.

The formula is familiar, but The Crazies does plenty to distinguish itself. Unlike typical zombies, these creatures retain varying degrees of their human intelligence, running the gamut from free-running, flesh-eating monsters to what can only be described as “super-rednecks”. While this makes them only marginally more interesting as characters, it’s still impressive to see zombies put to more substantial use than the nihilistic slaughter fantasy they usually amount to. What’s more, the film takes just enough time to establish an authentic setting and some sympathetic characters with very real stakes. From the outset, Ogden Marsh feels every bit like a real small town, with everyone on a first-name basis with town sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant), his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) – also the town’s doctor. When the military moves in to quell the infection, the plot becomes more like 1995’s Outbreak, but told from the perspective of the townspeople. From the moment the hubristic mayor dismisses the impending threat from what might be the only cornfield swimming pool in Iowa, the film barrels forward and never lets up. The result is a very well-paced chase thriller, told through the eyes of these characters by way of some brilliant but simple setpieces (there’s a sequence in the third act involving a drive-through carwash that I can only describe as pure joy).

As I think back, the tone of this film seems remarkably well balanced. There are many genuinely terrifying moments, and it adequately conveys the senseless human tragedy of it all while never shying away from a healthy dose of pitch-black humor. As it went on, I found myself genuinely afraid for the lives of the remaining characters, but could still chuckle as Timothy Olyphant took a sprawling tumble onto the floor of a funeral home and narrowly escaped getting his scrotum sliced open by a runaway electric bone saw. Indeed, Eisner’s direction makes a number of admirable choices, seemingly utilizing jump scares for the sole purpose of screwing with the audience, and then jarring them out of their seats as they slowly realize there’s an out-of-focus super-zombie still and salivating in the corner of the room.

The performances are quite adept, establishing a tense and believable dynamic between the three characters. Olyphant has long since proven that he can do no wrong as a small-town sheriff, and he and Mitchell make a convincing married couple, their performances helped along by many effective little moments of dialogue (“Don’t ask me why I can’t leave without my wife, and I won’t ask you why you can leave without yours”). Additionally, the shifting relationship between sheriff and deputy is one of the most fascinating aspects to the film. Between Anderson’s adept performance and the character’s well-written arc, the deputy’s plot stirs a sense of imminent danger and infection paranoia unparalleled since John Carpenter’s The Thing.

As soon as the credits rolled, I typed a single line for this review, demanding that Breck Eisner come down to my theater immediately and pry me loose from the edge of my seat. When I wrote up the film’s balls-out-audacious trailer back in October, I expected this film to be a good bit of cheese – a solid, shlocky B-horror film. What I finally saw was that and much more. Eisner’s direction balances the tone of the film perfectly, injecting just the right mix of horror, comedy, and drama. The allegorical elements are none-too-subtle, from the concentration camps to the good soldier who “didn’t sign up for this,” but they still imbue the film with some welcome depth. The Crazies takes the relatively straightforward premise of “zombies that can think” and turns it into a menacing and memorable piece of horror.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Week in Brief: “World’s Greatest Dad”, “A Perfect Getaway”

“Is that not the perfect visual image of life and death? A fish flapping on the carpet, and a fish not flapping on the carpet.”
-David Carradine, Kill Bill

Bobcat Goldthwait is not exactly known for conventional comedy. His last film, Sleeping Dogs Lie, told the tail tale of a girl whose subsequent relationships are ruined when she reveals that she once had a minor indiscretion with engaged in an inappropriate relationship with blew her dog.

While that film explored the nature of truth and honesty by way of dark comedy, World’s Greatest Dad is even more ambitious. It explores the nature and rise of celebrity, the nonsensical side of public grief, and the ways in which fathers view their children, and it does so in a way that is almost certain to offend everyone who sees it.

The film tells the story of Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), a struggling [read: failed] writer who works as a high school poetry teacher. The story centers around Lance, in his struggles as a writer, father, and boyfriend. His sociopathically ribald son Kyle (Daryl Sabara, of Spy Kids fame) also attends the school, which complicates their already-strained relationship.

I can’t say much more without revealing major spoilers, but suffice to say, certain events occur that complicate Lance’s experience as a father, and cause his writing career to take an unexpectedly positive turn.

Robin Williams gives a noteworthy performance, and really hits his stride in the second act as he starts to see the direction his writing career is going. The image of Williams standing at a newsstand on a Seattle street corner and openly weeping into the adult magazines is certainly one for the ages, and this will unquestionably be remembered as one of his best performances. Daryl Sabara performs ably as the son, although in truth, he’s not fleshed out too much as a character. The same goes for most of the secondary characters, who degenerate a bit as the film goes on.

But this film accomplishes something remarkable. It takes some of the darkest material ever put to screen and manages to present it in a sympathetic way. This is a jet-black comedy, and I can’t count on both hands the number of times I twisted uncomfortably in my chair while watching it. But it has heart. And while it veers off the rails a bit in the third act, particularly with regard to the secondary characters, this is definitely a film worth checking out for those with flexible standards of decency.

But this is not a film for everyone. World’s Greatest Dad is out in limited release now, and be prepared to walk out horrified, whether at the end of the film or somewhere in the middle.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

a_perfect_getaway_poster

Click to check out the trailer.

A Perfect Getaway was not a film I was terribly interested in seeing. Despite the presence of my perennial guilty pleasure, the lovely Milla Jovovich, this looked like a generic thriller with some impressive scenery.

The film is set on the island of Kauai, along the gorgeous Kalalau Trail, a strenuous 11-mile hike past Hanakāpīʻai Beach, one of the most beautiful and treacherous beaches in the world. While normally, the danger of this beach is due to the high surf and strong rip tides, in this film, there’s the added complication of a pair of murderers who’ve just escaped capture after butchering a pair of newlyweds in Honolulu. Are they here? Who could they be? What are they up to? These are the film’s central questions, and the end result is a very competent thriller. Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant clearly had a wonderful time chewing the scenery, and they give easily the most entertaining performances. Milla Jovovich also does a fine job, although I must admit I almost didn’t recognize her with the goth haircut and Valley Girl accent. Nonetheless, she does plenty to justify her presence before the film’s end.

The mere presence of the above actors would not have been sufficient to rope me into this film; it was ultimately the presence of writer/director David Twohy that made me curious. Twohy had previously impressed me with the Chronicles of Riddick films, which proved his expert hand at thoroughly cheesy sci-fi with a darkly comedic twinge. I saw this film in the hopes that he would prove as adept with a more conventional thriller, and by and large, I was not disappointed. There are far worse ways to spend an evening, and you would do well to catch this film before it disappears from theaters (as it likely will very soon).

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10