"...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)
(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 festival. 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.