Tag Archives: psychological thriller

Side Effects

Side Effects film posterSynopsis

Jude Law stars as Dr. Jonathan Banks, a British Psychiatrist, who has a patient who’s been taking the reputed wonder medication “Ablixa”.  Later we learn that it induces psychosis.  His patient is Emily (Rooney Mara). In seeming depression she crashes her car into a wall.  Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from jail and she kills him whilst taking Law’s prescribed drug.  Catherine Zeta Jones plays a psychologist in secret league with Rooney Mara, expecting her client to get off the murder charge due to diminished responsibility.  Rooney Mara felt that her life was falling apart after her husband was arrested so she then has a sexual and financial relationship with Zeta Jones. Will Zeta Jones and Rooney Mara be found out as Law is in deep trouble from the case as his wife leaves him?


Quite a watchable John Grisham type story.  Law does not have to torture the American accent so he can be his estuary self.  The story is well paced and the characters go through their not overly demanding roles well enough.  Pharmaceutical corruption is one of the really big corporate sins, and when it’s combined with mental illness then any film must think it’s taking on a pretty challenging subject, but this film does not do justice to such a topic. How could It?  The Jennifer Lawrence and Brad Cooper movie Silver Lining Playbook similarly was rather lightweight.  The subject is glamourised and so is too simplified.  Law does a reasonable job as a put upon psychologist but he is no crusader in the class of Erin Brokivitch (played by Julia Roberts).  His mission is not to tackle corporate pharmaceutical sin (Harrison Ford did this as Richard Kimble in The Fugitive) so much as to clear his name and outwit the two women who are involved in murder.  Would Law’s psychiatrist really have as much power over a patient in spite of his disgrace over prescribing “Ablixa” for a patient?  This is dramatically neat but is it realistic?  Better to go along for the noir-ish ride.  It’s a thriller about control, sex, and money.  Catherine Zeta Jones has the Black Widow role (remember that ’80s film?) and she holds attention as she plays the snake oil saleswomen, all close up sexualized predatoriness.  Rooney Mara is all poor little girl chic, vulnerability disguising menace.  Watchable but don’t expect any innovative angles.

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Posted by on November 13, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Stoker film posterSynopsis

Starring Nicole Kidman as Mrs Stoker whose husband Richard has just died (played by Dermot Mulroney).  Her daughter is India (Mia Wasikowska).  Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up.  He has sexual designs on the Stoker mother and daughter.  India flirts and Charlie teaches her to kill.  Charlie has a psychiatric history.  He kills his brother Richard.  Who else will he kill?


Made by Park Chan Wook (who made Oldboy in 2003).  This is such a sensually loaded film it makes you feel you’re being stroked.  The images are lush in a sort of Elvira Madigan trance of an idyllic summer.  One scene goes from the combing of hair to wheat waving in the wind.  Blood sprays white flowers.  It’s like Terence Mallick’s visual style mixed with a Hitchcock plot (indeed it derives from Shadow of a Doubt).  Nicole Kidman looks poised to aim neurosis or worse at whoever is in her sights  Sexual jealousy from mother to daughter is highly charged.  Emotions swarm beneath chilly elegance and it later electrifies the atmosphere.  Charlie. is a smirking con man, we know he is dangerous but we’ve seen more convincing specimens of his type: like Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains.  Charlie is not given any memorable lines but he is a suave killer.  This film lacks any originality of plot so it compensates by its density of image.  India says arty things about the photographs catching us out in unusual angles.  She is not exactly a killer in the style of Hitchcock’s Rope, more a lethal primitive pretending to sophistication.  Her voice-over reminds us of the amoral naivety of Sissy Spacek in Badlands.  It does not have the mesmeric music of that film although Summer Wine is a pleasant record sound track.  She sleeps on a bed with several pairs of identical shoes in a circle round her.  She may be rich and beautiful but she is ultimately a mundane assassin.  This is the Southern US and of course stereotypically it has to be loaded with a potential for evil, so it wouldn’t work if it were set in Akron Ohio would it?

Nicole Kidman is left with little to do in this film.  We are left to wonder if she is entirely guiltless of her husband’s death, and who is in more danger from Charlie, daughter or mother, and since they’re both unlikeable from the start we wouldn’t mind seeing their comeuppence.  Like a snooze in a wheat field.

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Posted by on March 20, 2013 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Take Shelter

Take Shelter posterSynopsis

About an American working man played by Michael Shannon, his name is Curtis.  He has premonitory dreams, or thinks he has.  He tries to warn people of an impending storm and flood.  The visions damage his marital and working relationships, especially when he builds a shelter in his garden.  He suspects he may be mentally ill, paranoia and schizophrenia run in his family.  There is a storm and he and his family take shelter.  Later they are at the coast and they all see something…..


This is a well done psychological thriller, if a little slow moving.  It cleverly manipulates our suspicions that he may not be mentally ill since he seems to have some insight into his possible mental condition.  Here we have mental illness that can endow its sufferer with shamanistic powers.  We expect some kind of objective validation for his dreams and waking visions.  He sees his wife in an enigmatic pose, furniture rises up and is suspended, he is attacked by his dog and wakes up to feel real pain.  Watching an American family disintergrate has become one of the blood sports of choice among film goers, it can be gripping because of what they have to lose.  We follow the familiar trajectory of marital discord, job loss and alienation from friends.  In this case, the visions cause embarrassment, unemployment, and increasing dysfunctionality.  When the storm really does hit, you feel that he has been vindicated but maybe not.  Does his wife follow him into the shelter to humour him or is the storm really a big threat?  This is almost a Twilight Zone moment and the film draws it out.  At the end you feel that he might get the endorsement from nature that we suspected.  This is the sort of role that Nicholas Cage gets, so it is nice to see a lesser known actor playing the lead.  Jessica Chastain plays his wife dealing with domestic and natural upheaval, er, like she did in Tree of Life.  The acting is pretty convincing and their response to their predicament is well observed.  The husband is like a Cassandra whose warnings are ignored, and he is also like Noah trying to deal with an impending flood in the face of indifference and ridicule.  I wonder if Michael Fish has watched this film (Fish is the meteorologist who in the late ’80s got a forecast spectacularly wrong).  This film seems to be saying that we can ultimately only rely on ourselves when finance, government, or nature go wrong.  It’s easy to knock away the everyday supports.  A story with a moral to it.


Posted by on December 20, 2011 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man posterSynopsis

Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film of his, which he says is stranger than fiction.  It’s based on the real life story of Manny Ballestrero who is a musician and family man who is wrongly accused of armed robbery.  He is identified as an armed robber by the woman who works in the insurance office he visits.  The police parade him before robbery victims, and they are all fairly certain that Fonda who plays Manny Ballestrero is the culprit.  He is taken to the station, his writing is compared with the robber’s, he is identified in the parade as the criminal.  We see him subject to the Kafka-like alienation of the prison procedures, we see his world cave in, and his 1950’s ‘American dream’ wife go to pieces and be admitted into psychiatric care.  The real robber is found, Fonda’s wife recovers her mental health, and the woman who did for him looks ashamed.


This is a black and white 1956 film, and along side Twelve Angry Men we see Fonda playing the martyr to weakness and stupidity.  Interestingly, we only know of Fonda’s innocence because Hitchcock tells us so at the beginning.  His point is not to make a thriller whose outcome leaves us in suspense, but to show us the effects of wrongful accusation.  The effects, of course, are usually psychologically,socially, economically and morally devastating.

This was made during the paranoid 50’s, what with its ‘un-American activities’ conjured up by McCarthy and the threat of nuclear war, but there is an ironic inversion here:  instead of Fonda being a threat to citizens, they are a threat to him.  Their well intentional stupidity is destructive and alarming, as was the paranoia of the anti-communist hysteria.  I’d like to think Hitchcock was attacking such mean minded politics, but maybe not.  Interestingly his leading lady, Vera Miles, is ‘Mrs American dream’ at the start of the film, then she goes insane, unable to take the ostracism her husband suffers.  Whatever Hitchcock’s real intentions, he was exposing the fragility of the American dream.  It was okay as long as people behaved themselves; the paradise of the new washing machines could be easily upset.  This was the era of the Douglas Sirk film.

We see the slow pressure working on Fonda’s own sanity and self respect:  the suspicion surrounding him, the writing tests that seem to confirm his guilt, the identity parades all turning the screw on his self doubt.  Hitchcock is much better at showing ‘ordinary’ people trying to hold on to their sanity than he is at cod psychology in films such as Psycho and Marnie.

Anthony Quayle plays the lawyer defending Fonda, and you can see that he doubts Fonda but tries to battle his doubt.  This accentuates the loneliness of the accused person, if there’s so much accusation, surely there is something in it?  This is the nearest that Hitchcock gets to the genius of The Trial by Kafka.  Only Fonda, and we the onlookers, know that he is innocent, the implacable righteousness of his accusers is as terrifying as the intractable enigma of The Trial and its agents.  They are well intentioned people who think they are doing good but their very conscientiousness is appalling in its sense of right.  This fascinates Hitchcock, the process over which we  have no control and how it manipulates us:  it can be a psychotic’s mind, a flock of birds gone mad, people caught up in Cold War spy games.  Remember the mistaken identity of James Stewart  in North by North West and his helplessness in the face of sinister manipulation.  None of this is as bad as a real life case of mistaken identity.  Hitchcock traces the disintegration of this victims’ life with almost sadistic respect for detail, made worse by the fact that we don’t know the exact ending.  Mistaken identity or the search for an authentic identity are big factors in Hitchcock films like in Vertigo and there is no consoling redemption through love.  The Fonda victim is vindicated by accident, he could have easily gone to jail battling the indifference and suspicion of his lawyer and family.

This is Hitchcock at his best and yet amazingly is one of his least known films.  Note how the camera lingers accusingly on Fonda’s face like it did through the window of the hotel room at the start of Psycho or in Rear Window. We know Fonda is innocent but the camera wants to catch at any weakening of resolve, or at any doubt of self in the face of consensual slander abetted by the sort of bureaucratic processes which ensure the guilt of the accused.  An uneasy film, and scarier than the fictions of his other works of this period.  Hitchcock’s gaze is full on in this movie.


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