June 5, 2009

Revanche, Jerichow, and the State of the American Suspense Thriller

In discussing the Underrated MOTM for May, Breakdown, I lamented that American suspense thrillers are about as prevalent and dependable as American cars these days:

"...shouldn't we appreciate it and movies like it more during this absolute drought of American thrillers? Over the last two years, for example, every first-tier No Country for Old Men or Zodiac, or second-tier Transsiberian or Gone Baby Gone, is outnumbered by an Eagle Eye, Vantage Point, 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill, or Untraceable, to name just a few. That I've seen none of those last five is, well, the point. American directors and studios are in far too deep with remakes, sequels, and "reboots" to think of anything new, while across the pond there's a seemingly constant stream of quality suspense. But this is really another rant for another time."

Like now. If anyone has any evidence to the contrary I'm all ears, but you'll be hard-pressed to convince me that big-budget projects like State of Play, Valkyrie, Traitor, or Body of Lies can sit on the same shelf as imports like last year's Three Monkeys, Let the Right One In, Boy A, Tell No One, and Roman de Gare, or this year's Revanche and Jerichow.

What's the problem? Well for one, Hollywood is in the midst of a decade-long remake/reboot/sequel bonanza that defies all logic, reason, and, in my young memory, precedent. I may not be happy with it, but I think I get it: moody suspense thrillers ain't exactly the easiest films for studios to market, and if you're developing a film that doesn't have a major star and can't dominate a box-office weekend, you might as well forget about it. Which leaves us, for the most part, with mediocre "suspense blockbusters" and very good foreign films with extremely limited releases. (Although in addition to the recent second-tier American thrillers I already mentioned, I would even add a third-tier of halfway decent, if not at least admirably original thrillers like Lakeview Terrace, Reservation Road, and We Own the Night.)

Secondly, I'm increasingly convinced that the majority of American directors just aren't using the right formula to create true suspense. Admittedly there are a handful who have done some solid work in recent years, including the Coen Brothers, David Fincher (Zodiac), Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects - and also Valkyrie), Christopher Nolan (Memento), Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan), and Scott Frank (The Lookout). But on balance, the American market is flooded with films that are "suspenseful" because of their action sequences (e.g., the Bourne series) or suspenseful because you're on the edge of your seat wondering if you're the only one who has absolutely no clue what's going on (e.g., Syriana).

What's frustrating is that American directors used to be masters of suspense (but not, of course, The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who is above and beyond this discussion); consider Orson Welles, Jules Dassin, Sydney Lumet , Alan Pakula, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, John Boorman, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, John Frankenheimer, Jonathan Demme, David Lynch, and even Steven Spielberg. Many of these directors have unfortunately passed on, but those who are still with us (Spielberg) seem to have lost their creative touch, and their successors have done little of significance in recent years.

Meanwhile, in Europe (and particular Germany), a group of young filmmakers is churning out original thrillers of extremely high quality. In addition to the directors of the foreign films I mentioned earlier, as well as Germans Tom Tykwer (The Princess and the Warrior) and Fatih Akin (The Edge of Heaven), we have two very promising writer-directors with new films out this summer: German Christian Petzold and Austrian Götz Spielmann.

See these movies if possible, and then ask yourself why, on this side of the Atlantic, we haven't figured out that simple story + well-developed characters we can relate to + a bad decision or two - manipulative musical cues - obligatory sex and action = real suspense. It's a pretty elementary formula, but then I suppose we've always been behind the rest of the world when it comes to math, right?

(Revanche opens today at the Landmark Lagoon Cinema)

As the global economy continues to go through, oh, a rough patch, conventional wisdom would say that a rise in crime and illicit activity would follow along. People might start getting desperate and robbing banks, for example, and as most of us are not professional criminals, things are bound to go awry. Such is the case in Revanche when Alex (Johannes Krisch, a striking Colin Farrell lookalike) and his Ukrainian girlfriend attempt to hit a small bank on the outskirts of Vienna.

What goes wrong is for you to find out, but I'm giving little away to disclose that Alex is soon hiding, or rather living, at his grandfather's pastoral country cottage. He spends his days moping and cutting wood, and his nights moping and having an affair with one of his grandfather's neighbors (Ursula Strauss). In his mind he is always plotting his revenge (revanche), but the further he gets from the bank incident, the less sure he is that revenge is really the answer.

The tagline for the film is "Whose fault is it if life doesn't go your way?", which is somewhat misleading in that it suggests an answer would be sufficient. More appropriate would something like "What do you do when life doesn't go your way?", because while much of Revanche is about assigning blame to the right person when an accident happens (hint: you can't), on a deeper level it's more about what happens when you think you've figured who that is.

We don't really know how long it takes Alex to fully understand this, because writer-director Götz Spielmann has given us a tense, moody character who, like Benjamin Button, primarily communicates with his eyes. The difference is that Johannes Krisch completely owns this performance, no make-up or CGI required. What is he thinking? What is he planning? We can only guess, and in the meantime we're wracked with gripping anxiety about how and when he might snap.

One of the interesting things about Revanche (as well as Jerichow) is that unlike in Breakdown, the typical Hitchcock set-up of "innocent character trying to escape situation and/or clear their name" is thrown out the window. Alex is not innocent, yet you almost have to convince yourself of that fact as you begin empathizing with him throughout the film. This is a pretty amazing achievement by Spielmann, and despite a legendary year for foreign film in 2008, it would be hard to argue with the Academy Award nomination he received for Revanche.


(Jerichow opens July 10, 2009 at the Landmark Edina Cinema)

Despite all of my whining and complaining about remakes, I find I forgive such movies if they're able to play by their own rules and establish their own identities, maybe thus disqualifying them as actual remakes. A popular term recently is "retread", and so maybe as Breakdown was a retread of The Vanishing, Christian Petzold's noirish Jerichow is a retread of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

It doesn't get much simpler than this: Thomas (Benno Fürmann, who also starred in The Princess and The Warrior) is a strapping army veteran who's recently completed a tour in Afghanistan and moved into his late mother's house in the formerly East German town of Jerichow. Unemployed and with little direction in his life, he fatefully meets Ali, a Turkish businessman, and Laura, Ali's beautiful blonde wife. Despite (or perhaps because of) his jealous tendencies, Ali asks Thomas to work for him as a delivery truck driver. Thomas and Laura predictably fall for each other and bad decisions are soon made by everybody.

Judging by the trailer you might think Jerichow plays like a soap opera, but as in real life, the dilemmas faced by Thomas, Laura, and Ali are believable, and the consequences of their actions are grave. Moreover, Petzold keeps the intrigue high by gradually allowing these complex characters and their backstories to fully bloom over the course of 93 riveting minutes. You don't get to know somebody after a five minute discussion in real life, so why shouldn't it be the same in movies? Because of Petzold's patience (and because there are only three characters), by the climactic ending our loyalties are torn among the three.

Immediately after seeing Jerichow at MSPIFF in April I regretted missing Petzold's Yella at last year's festiva
l. As in Revanche, greed, lust, guilt, and distrust are simmering under the surface, discussed but never spoken. Jerichow, however, also has urgent real-world issues on its mind, including the fact that German-Turkish cultural tensions (a must in any contemporary German film) are no longer relegated to the big cities.

I should mention that Jerichow's finale, while not necessarily contrived, wasn't what I had hoped for. In other words, you can sense what's coming but you hold out hope that it won't happen in predictable fashion. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant surprise at MSPIFF and frustratingly better than its recent American counterparts. By that, I mean there are none.


  1. I like the way you think, honey...

    Neither REVANCHE or JERICHOW have opened here yet. But I may not end up seeing either of them.

    But your juxtoposition between their fresh, original way of being and stale Hollywood product that looks and sounds formulaic is effotlessly brilliant. You make some startlingly good points.

    But here's the deal...

    Talkies arrived in the 1930s. Thus the modern age of cinema began.

    In every single era crap has been made. LOTS OF IT. There have always been producers and studios willing to crank out garbage that will be true blue money makers - things that will appeal to wide audiences and/or to the lowest common denominator.

    But I think that film audiences - and their expectations - have changed a great deal too.

    Although no era is safe from lousy movies targeted at making a buck or the "prestige picture" that is largely produced to gain awards attention and secure profit that way, American cinema started to change drastically in the 80s.

    It certainly hasn't been for the better.

    Make no mistake. The U.S. film industry (i.e. Hollywood) has always existed to make money. It's crass and discouraging. But if that weren't the case, then the film business as we know it would have ceased to exist a long time ago.

    But in the 80s (the era of greed) the notion of moneymaking carried over to an extreme degree. That was the beginning of the disappearance of the gorgeous single screen movie palaces in every North American city - to be replaced by the stunningly impersonal cavernous multiplexes. That was also the outset of the weekly Top 10 films at the box office being widely publicized.

    Before the 80s, only studio employees and people that read the trades had access to that information - and individuals that picked up VARIETY and HR were only given limited stats after the fact.

    As far as I know, outside of studio business, no one before the 80s had any idea how much money a film was making. Now it's ingrained in our culture. It's common water cooler talk on the following Monday.

    It's a total eradication of the system that will certainly not benefit cinema goers in the long run. Don't even get me started on the principle that a lot of casual filmgoers and people that attend theatres that are noncinephiles used to think that a film was automatically "good" if it made a lot of money.

    Though that may very well be a moot point by now - considering the kinds of movies that are consistently #1 week in and week out.

    It's appalling. If not downright embarrassing.

    Then there's the matter of scripts.

    There are so few brilliant writers. Even fewer dazzling screenwriters. Suspense thrillers need strong, intricate, believable plotting.

    That doesn't fall from the sky.

    There's no such thing as originality any more. That's why there are all the sequels, remakes and reimaginings. Plus all of the comic book and superhero nonsense.

    The rule is: if it made money before, we can work to have it make money again. Superhero? Lowest common denominator. Check.

    So what was my original point...?

    Basically that we're lucky to be exposed to anything good. Much less magnificent, enlightening or mindblowing - especially with the changes that have gone on in the last 20 years.

    When I look at pictures like DEAD AGAIN, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE STUNT MAN, THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and ROMEO IS BLEEDING, I am in complete and total awe. Great intelligence and style are allowed to run wild. Those directors knew where the parameters were...and just blew the doors off.

    But then you have guys like Jonathan Demme and Lawrence Kasdan (who have both directed wonderful films) that both made the best motion pictures of their entire careers in that genre - SOTL and BODY HEAT respectively - and have never had that high water mark eclipsed.

    Will they EVER be that awesome again? There's always hope. But I doubt it.

    Anyway, that's my two and a half cents...

    Excellently done as always, Danny...

  2. Wow, that's an amazing writeup! I say, caustic + insightful + heartfelt = great article.

    You've just upped my interest for the two movies. By the way, speaking of American thrillers of recent years, I really liked Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

    Coming after the elaborate comment above, mine might appear excruciatingly concise. But then, to use your phrase in a different context, thats the point :)

  3. The talkies arrived in the 20s.

    Anyway, nitpicking aside, I definitely agree with you here Daniel. "Jerichow" is excellent. Not great but I was almost immediately drawn into it. It's amazing how it creates suspense and tension just through the situation, without ever having to push it. It reminded me in some ways of "Cache."

    Foreign thrillers are light years ahead of American ones right now.

  4. I am making the rounds to remind everyone about the "Reading the Movies" exercise I started. I'm going to compile everyone's lists into one master list in a week or two, so jump in! The original post can be found here:



  5. Hehe, pretty discouraging analysis, Miranda, especially this bit: "As far as I know, outside of studio business, no one before the 80s had any idea how much money a film was making." That's a really interesting consideration, and goes a long way in explaining at least the obsession with franchises/sequels. I'm still skeptical that all originality is gone from Hollywood, but there isn't a lot of evidence to the contrary - other than the piles of it from filmmakers outside of the U.S. But of course, we rarely see those. Frustrating...but thank you for your astute thoughts on this drought. I think you might actually like either of these if they make their way to you.

    Many thanks, Shubhajit, and glad that I pointed you in the way of these two movies. As much as I didn't fall head over heels for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, in the context of this conversation is pretty much a recent masterpiece. Perhaps I should have mentioned it with Lumet's name when I said those guys weren't doing much lately, but it seems to be the exception, unfortunately, and not the rule.

    Matthew, I was going to mention Haneke (another Austrian, interestingly enough) as another member of this group but then I didn't for some reason. Certainly Caché has to be considered one of the top thrillers of this decade, if you can legitimately call it a thriller. And isn't it interesting, and a little disappointing, that instead of creating a new story, Haneke just remade his own movie? What was the point of that again?

    Yes, MovieMan, that's been a pretty impressive meme so far as I've been observing it - congrats!

  6. Haneke didn't remake "Cache," though. He remade "Funny Games."

    Is Ron Howard still attached to remake "Cache?"

  7. Ha! Tell me you're joking about Howard...ugh, just looked it up and you're not. I never saw The Missing, but even his Ransom, as entertaining as it is, doesn't really hold much suspense. Too much of that credit goes to Gibson.

    And I was talking about the Funny Games remake with Haneke there, but I just jammed that thought too close to the comment about Caché. Shoulda clarified.

  8. This is kind of aprapos of nothing, but the definition, or at least your definition, of suspense thriller, seems to cast too wide a net. Seems odd to discuss Syriana, Let the Right One In and The Usual Suspects as being in the same genre.

    That said, I get your point, but I'm not so distressed about it. I've never thought that (at least in my moviegoing lifetime) thrillers were really meant to be big box-office hits. Sure, something like Basic Instinct might become a hit, and there will be many mid-level hits (Usual Suspects, Memento) that catch on first as cult hits and then join the mainstream, but these aren't films for the masses, plain and simple. Lately more than ever, it seems like they're stepping stones towards big budget affairs, which is sad indeed, but so long as new blood steps in to fill the void, I'm not all that worried.

  9. Perhaps so, but I guess I'm defining them in some sense as dramas with some kind of mystery or dramatic twist.

    And my issue wasn't necessarily with their box-office success or viability as food for the masses - I do agree that they're for a more specialized audience. My problem is that I don't think American directors in particular are stepping up as much as they used to in this genre, if i can be called that.


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