Tag Archives: psychological thriller

Review – Elle (18) [2017]

Star Rating 4/5

Director:

  • Paul Verhoeven – Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Black Book, Lyon 1943

Cast:

  • Isabelle Hubbert – Hidden Love, Amour, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, Barrage
  • Laurent Latiffe – The Crimson Rivers, Little White Lies, Divorce French Style, KO
  • Anne Consigny – 36th Precinct, Wild Grass, History’s Future, La Deuxième Étoile
  • Charles Berling – Ridicule, Forbidden House, March of the Penguins, Flueve Noir
  • Virginie Efira – Second Chance, It Boy, Up For Love, Pris de Court
  • Christian Berkel – Downfall, Inglorious Basterds, Anti-Social, In Wahrheit
  • Judith Maguire – The Lovers, Jesus of Montreal, Nathalie…, Parisiennes
  • Jonas Bloquet – Private Lessons, The Family, 3 Days To Kill, Valerian and the City of a Thousands Planets
  • Alice Isaaz – The Gilded Cage, Smart Ass, One Wild Moment, Espèces Menacées

Music Composer:

  • Anne Dudley – The Gathering, Black Book, Poldark, Away

How did Emma Stone win the Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role earlier this year? Yes, her performance in La La Land was decent. But it was not Oscar worthy. There were other performances than deserved the award more than hers. One need only look at Amy Adams’ two superb performances in Nocturnal Animals and Arrival to see better performances (both of which were scandalously disregarded even for nominations!). Another performance is that of Isabelle Hubbert in Elle.

Michèle (Isabelle Hubbert) out with friends and drinking wine, after her ordeal.

Elle is directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on the book oh… by Philippe Dijon. The film begins with Michèle (Isabelle Hubbert), a successful business woman, getting raped in her plush Parisian home by someone wearing a ski mask. Who is it? And, more pertinently, why does Michèle not call the police?

Elle is a French psychological thriller. Paul Verhoeven has Showgirls and Basic Instinct in his back catalogue. But neither of those films are on a par with Elle as Elle is highly disturbing and morally bankrupt film, even by the standards of the genre.

The movie revolves around Michèle and the people who surround her: in particular, her friends; her neighbours; her colleagues; her aging mother and her (toyboy) boyfriend; and her delinquent son and his (scummy) girlfriend. Very soon into the film, however, it becomes apparent that our protagonist plays fast and loose with the truth and that she is not just an unfortunate victim of a horrific crime. This is a woman with a bad past and her behaviour is that of a sociopath.

Michèle buying an axe to defend herself against potential future intruders and assaults.

Furthermore, Michèle does not react to the rape like someone who has been raped. (Granted, there is no single reaction to this and everyone reacts differently, but) Michèle displays no hint of numbness or of being shattered, personality-wise. This raises the troubling question of whether she has been raped at all; especially as, before long, her rapist is texting her. How many masked rapists do that? Also, the rapist broke into her house. Why is there no sign of a break in?

These are for Elle to answer. Yet, when the answers come they don’t make sense in the context of the rest of the film. This is very disappointing. One can expect to be thrown off guard by a psychological thriller, for sure. Gone Girl did that with spectacular success and jaws gaped. But with Elle, one merely thinks: huh?

This is not the only problem with the movie. The score is filled with cheap tropes. Foreboding music plays on the nerves when it is unnecessary, where there is no danger for the characters. This irritates the viewer after a while, as the music is as untrustworthy as our central protagonist.

Michèle looking lovingly at her married friend and neighbour, Patrick (Laurent Latiffe).

Speaking again of Michèle, Isabelle Hubbert plays her phenomenally well and covers many of the holes in Elle’s plot. Indeed, all of the actors play really well. Yet, Hubbert is outstanding in the lead role. She captivates and makes her character come alive in a dishearteningly plausible way. This feat should not be underestimated as Michèle is a multifaceted person, who is as envious as she is successful, as underhand as she is shameless, and as villainous as she is a victim. This again forces one to question how Emma Stone won the Oscar earlier this year. Stone’s role in La La Land was not nearly as demanding as Hubbert’s in Elle, and Stone did not hold the attention of the audience as Hubbert does here.

All-in-all, Elle is a French psychological thriller. It has its flaws story-wise, and it is sick and twisted at its core. But it also has brilliant, praiseworthy performances; Isabelle Hubbert’s being exceptional. It is a shame that she has not received more recognition and awards for her role. It is a travesty that she was overlooked in favour of Emma Stone.

PG’s Tips

Review – The Gift (15) [2015]

The Gift - title banner2

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Joel Edgerton

Cast:

  • Jason Bateman – Juno, The Change-Up, Horrible Bosses I & II, The Family Fang
  • Rebecca Hall – Dorian Gray, Iron Man III, Transcendence, Christine
  • Joel Edgerton – Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty, Exodus: Gods And King, Jane Got A Gun
  • Allison Tolman – Fargo, Hello Ladies: The Movie, Addicted To Fresno, Krampus
  • Adam Lazarre-White – G-Spot, Torn, Forgiveness, Stephanie
  • Busy Philipps – ER, The Reef 2, Cougar Town, Vice Principals
  • PJ Byrne – Charlie Wilson’s War, Horrible Bosses I, The Wolf of Wall Street, Eloise

Music Composers:

  • Danny Bensi – Martha Marcy May Marlene, Enemy, Last Days In The Desert, Christine
  • Saunder Jurriaans – Martha Marcy May Marlene, Enemy, Last Days In The Desert, Christine

In the last dozen years, there have been a string of actors who have turned themselves into creditable directors. Sofia Coppola directed Lost in Translation in 2003 (and was nominated for two Oscars for it). While George Clooney directed and starred in The Ides of March in 2011 and Ben Affleck did the same in Argo in 2013 (and won an Oscar for it). Joel Edgerton seems to be the latest actor to try his luck behind the camera, and his directorial debut is a gem.

The happy couple. Simon (Jason Bateman) showing affection to his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) whilst convincing her that this is the right house for them to make a home.

The happy couple. Simon (Jason Bateman) showing affection to his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) whilst convincing her that this is the right house for them to make a home.

Edgerton’s film, The Gift, centres round an ostensibly happy couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall). They have just moved from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles because Simon got a new job. One evening, when they are at a shop buying supplies for their new home, they bump into Gordon ‘Gordo’ Moseley (Joel Edgerton). Gordo remembers Simon from their high school days and is keen to become friends with Robyn and Simon. Simon, though, is not so keen since he remembers how much of a weirdo Gordo was back then. (Simon even boasts that he and his peers called Gordo ‘the Weirdo’ back in school because he was so weird.)

Nevertheless, Gordo goes to their new house when Simon is not around and starts giving them gifts, despite neither Robyn nor Simon asking for any. Soon, Gordo’s behaviour begins to trouble Simon and Robyn. It puts a strain on their marriage, especially as Robyn suspects that Simon is not telling her something…

The Gift is a slow-burning psychological thriller. Not a lot happens for much of the film. Yet, it is a tense watch. This is primarily because Director Joel Edgerton (thankfully) does not use loud, sudden noises to artificially inject jump-scares into his viewers. Rather, he uses the natural spookiness of the suburban area to good effect and creates a scenario that nobody would want to experience. The combination induces an organic and ethereal tautness into the audience, thereby making The Gift an uncomfortable watch.

Gordo (Joel Edgerton) staring with unsettling intent at Simon and Robyn at the store.

Gordo (Joel Edgerton) staring with unsettling intent at Simon and Robyn at the local supply store.

Central to The Gift being an uncomfortable watch is Edgerton as an actor. Edgerton is really good as the unsettlingly weird Gordo. With just a look (or a gift), he can make viewers feel like ants are crawling under their skin. Edgerton’s/Gordo’s weird behaviour is one of the reasons for this; the other is due to the phenomenal (and subtle) job that the cosmeticians have done to his face. They have transformed Edgerton from a pleasant, amiable-looking guy into someone that no-one would ever want to come across, whether in a supermarket, a social gathering, on the train, or in a dark alley at night. (Especially not in a dark alley at night!)

Edgerton/Gordo is undoubtedly the star of the film. He activates the tension and his behaviour gets unnervingly weirder and weirder the more The Gift goes on. Yet, one cannot ignore the roles played by Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman either to making the movie tense. Hall plays plausibly well as a woman who seems fine on the surface, but has psychological issues brooding under the surface; while Bateman plays decently as his seemingly usual, (semi-)comic, supercilious self. Nevertheless, neither Hall nor Bateman have the same weight on screen as Edgerton. One spends much of the time when Edgerton is not on screen waiting for him to reappear as one knows that something strange and unsettling is likely to occur.

Edgerton gets a lot right as an actor in The Gift. He also gets a lot right as the director and writer of the film too. He captures the cinematography of a suburban town well (with all its beauty and mundane scariness), and uses relatively long shoots to enable viewers to feel the normality (and tension) of the situation unfolding for Hall’s and Bateman’s characters with impressive skill.

Simon and Rebecca find a gift awaiting them at the house upon returning from some friends. Guess who its from...?

Simon and Rebecca find a gift awaiting them at the house upon returning from some friends. Guess who its from…?

Additionally, Edgerton has written a very good script that has believable dialogue and a solid storyline. It is only in the climactic scene at the very end of the film that one or two elements of the dialogue and script don’t work. Indeed, they seem entirely at odds with the realism of the rest of the movie. But to put too much stress on the (eye-raising nature of the) end would be to do The Gift and Joel Edgerton a disservice. As an actor and as a director, Edgerton emphasises that he has talent akin to Sofia Coppola, George Clooney and Ben Affleck.

Over-all, The Gift is a well-executed psychological thriller. The final scenes may be questionable. But the film is tense and suspenseful in an entirely naturalistic and refreshing way. Undeniably, Edgerton is the shining light of this film as an actor, the writer and the director. He is creepy as the main supporting actor; intelligent in his script-writing; and neat in his directing. Edgerton is highly unlikely to be nominated, let alone win, an Oscar for his directing The Gift. But this is a great directorial debut from him, and one looks forward to watching what he writes and directs next.

PG’s Tips

Review – Before I Go To Sleep (15) [2014]

Before I Go To Sleep - title banner

Star Rating: 3/5

Director:

  • Rowan Joffe – Brighton Rock

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Ed Shearmur – Cruel Intentions, Derailed, Miss Congeniality, Masters of Horror

In my review of last year’s Trance, I wrote about how psychological thrillers mess with the mind and how they tend to be enjoyable and very intense, with semi-plausible plot twists that keep audiences guessing long after the conclusion of the film. Before I Go To Sleep is more of the same and a credit to the genre.

Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up, as she does every morning, not knowing who she is or her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), sleeping next to her.

Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up, as she does every morning, not knowing who she is or her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), sleeping next to her.

Before I Go To Sleep is based on the 2011 novel with the same title by SJ Watson. The film centres round Christine (Nicole Kidman), an amnesiac unable to remember a thing from one day to the next, to the despondency of her husband, Ben (Colin Firth). Dr Nash (Mark Strong) calls Christine every morning to make her watch a video recording of herself from the previous day. This way Christine can remind herself of what she did the previous day in an attempt to cure herself of her amnesia and, more importantly, so that she can figure out/remember the truth about the incident that gave her amnesia.

Before I Go To Sleep is an intense and entertaining film. It is not as complex as Trance, but Before I Go To Sleep still holds audience’s attention with great success throughout its relatively short, 92-minute running time. What makes the movie so absorbing is the way the film slowly (and deliberately) dangles carrots of information to viewers, so that they naturally form conclusions in their heads as to how Christine became an amnesiac. This adds to the thrill of the story and guarantees that when the twist comes, it is a genuine surprise in a good way.

Christine having a meeting with Dr Nash (Mark Strong), without Ben's knowledge or consent.

Christine having a meeting with Dr Nash (Mark Strong), without Ben’s knowledge or consent.

However, whether the twist makes plausible sense upon looking back on the film is highly questionable. One of the problems with the twist is that viewers are not given a crucial piece of information midway through the film. While it is common in psychological thrillers not to reveal vital pieces of information about events prior to the starting point of the film (timeline-wise) until the final revelation, it is another thing entirely for information to be (cynically and sinfully) withheld from viewers from the start of the movie’s timeline. This feels like the director has cheated on his audience and not in a good way.

Putting the plot twist aside, the dialogue throughout the film has been well written and the acting is decent, without being outstanding. Nicole Kidman plays believably as the anxious and emotionally distraught central character. She looks the part: gaunt, skinny, vulnerable and confused. More could time been devoted to her backstory, but that is not the real issue with Kidman’s performance. The real issue is that her performance carries the odour from her last film: the ill-fated The Grace of Monaco. With this mephitic whiff emanating from Kidman, it is hard to watch her in Before I Go To Sleep without feeling that her career has fallen and that she is trying (hard) to get herself back on track again.

The same odour, however, does not affect from the performances of the two main members of the supporting cast. Both Colin Firth and Mark Strong do good jobs with the material that they are given. If anything, the material and screen-time that they are given lets them down. Neither Firth nor Strong are given enough time on screen and the movie does not explore their personalities and their motives deeply enough.

Christine watching and recording herself in secret to try and remind herself who she is and what did the previous day.

Christine watching and recording herself in secret to try and remind herself who she is and what did the previous day.

Apart from the acting, Ed Shearmur’s score is not outstanding but it is atmospheric and unsettling. This helps to mess with one’s mind and helps to make Before I Go To Sleep a good film and a worthwhile addition to its genre.

All-in-all, Before I Go To Sleep is a thoroughly enjoyable and intense psychological thriller. It has a much simpler plot than other films in its genre, but that is not to the movie’s detriment due to the force of the storyline, the dialogue and the acting. Before I Go To Sleep’s plot twist is suspect, yet it will certainly take viewers by surprise and, therefore, like Trance, will keep audiences thinking long after the film has finished.

PG’s Tips

Review – Trance (15) [2013]

Trance - title banner

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Rick Smith – Breaking and Entering

Psychological thrillers, by their nature, are puzzling and mess with one’s mind. Inception, Shutter Island and Black Swan all did this with varying levels of charm, appeal and success. Danny Boyle’s impressive and sexy Trance adds something new to this testing sub-genre.

Simon (James McAvoy), unconscious after being bashed on the head by a batton. As a result, he cannot remember what he did with the painting.

Simon (James McAvoy), unconscious after being bashed on the head by a batton. As a result, he cannot remember what he did with the painting.

  Trance centres round Simon (James McAvoy), who works for a London-based company that auctions expensive paintings. The company has a security system in place to prevent the paintings from getting stolen, and Simon is part of the system.

However, when Franck (Vincent Cassel) leads a gang to steal a precious painting during an auction, the painting disappears. Simon, the last person to have handled the painting before its disappearance, was smacked on the head while he removed the painting. Since then, he has developed amnesia and so he can’t remember where he put the painting. In a desperate bid to find the painting, Franck decides that Simon must go to Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotherapist. Elizabeth believes that by hypnotising Simon, she can get him to recollect the location of the painting.

Trance’s plot is clever and innovative. The film is fast-paced from the off, intense, violent and engaging. It is complex and confusing too, since it constantly does back and forth in time, unravelling what happened to the painting as well as explaining the various (and sinister) motivations of the characters. Moreover, and similar to Black Swan, one is never sure in Trance when one is watching reality or a dream (or a memory or a possible memory). All of this keeps viewers firmly on their toes because no-one can be sure as to where the film is going.

Simon undergoing hypnotherapy with Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to regain his memory regarding the painting.

Simon undergoing hypnotherapy with Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) in an attempt to regain his memory regarding the painting.

Although, it is dubious as to whether Trance’s storyline actually makes sense. Again, this is not novel to the sub-genre: it is uncertain whether the plots for The Machinist or Shutter Island added up (but no-one would argue that those were atrocities to cinema, like Sucker Punch or The Lady In the Water); while Fight Club and Inception demanded that one see them twice (at least) before being able to appreciate (or understand) those movies, and few had reason to complain about those excellent films either. Perhaps, the latter is true for Trance. However, there are some quite significant plot issues that could undermine the film and its realism (if one believes in the effectiveness of hypnotism/hypnotherapy, of course), but these are not going to be discussed here as they would spoil the thrill for those who haven’t seen the movie.

The force of Trance’s storyline is matched by the three main (and more or less only) cast members; James McAvoy in particular. Far from his relaxed demeanour as Charles Xavier/Professor X in X-Men: First-Class, his performance as Simon resembles that of his (brilliant but crazed) stage performance as MacBeth. Nothing illustrates this similitude more than the intensity in Simon’s bombardier blue eyes, as the hypnotherapy, combined with his own problems take effect on him.

Similarly, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson play well, but not with the same power as McAvoy. As Franck, Cassel does a decent job as a shady, amoral character. Yet, it is hard to classify him as the villain here since there is no-one who is particularly good in Trance (some people are just much worse than others). But if one does view Franck as the main antagonist, then one may not feel entirely satisfied with Cassel’s performance because he does not possess the look or the flair to make himself a dangerous villain on screen, unlike the cunning Liam Neeson in Batman Begins/The Dark Knight Rises, or the terrifying Michal Zurawski in In Darkness, or the flamboyant Javier Bardem in Skyfall.

Franck (Vincent Cassel), furtherst right, keeping a worryingly close eye on Simon's treatement, with his group of thugs alongside him to illustrate the consequences for Simon if he fails to shake off his amnesia.

Franck (Vincent Cassel), furtherst right, keeping a worryingly close eye on Simon’s treatment, with his group of thugs at his side to illustrate the consequences for Simon if he fails to shake off his amnesia.

While as Elizabeth the hypnotherapist, the stunning Dawson wonderfully holds her patients (as well as the audience) under her spell, as if ravishingly embodying the psychological thrill of the movie and the sub-genre in one attempt.

Over-all, Trance is a mind-bending and gripping film that is a worthy addition to the sub-genre of psychological thrillers. The movie has its flaws, but to a limited extent these should be disregarded because Boyle’s film is original, appealing and stylish. Furthermore, like all noteworthy psychological thrillers, Trance takes one out of one’s comfort zone and, to its credit, keeps one in thought long after the film has ended.

PG’s Tips

Review – Black Swan (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

Obsession is a dangerous mindset to fall into. It has the power to consume its victim, and drive him or her to madness. Black Swan may look like it is about ballerinas and Ballet in general, but it is not: it is about obsession, and the psychological effects and the physical strains it can cause someone. Yet, if the film meant to tackle these complex issues acutely, it goes preposterously too far to be taken seriously.

The movie is viewed through the eyes of Nina (Natalie Portman – Star Wars I IIIBrothers, Your Highness), an innocent, pretty but mentally unstable ballerina, who lives with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey – Falling Down, Hannah and her Sisters). Nina has seemingly devoted her whole life to becoming Odette, the White Swan, in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. But the company she works for has made a slight altercation to the performance: the girl who plays Odette will also have to play her evil twin-sister, Odile, the Black Swan. Whilst Nina fits the role of the White Swan perfectly, she has to learn how to become manipulative and provocative in order to play the Black Swan.

Thomas urging Nina to ‘feel’ and ‘respond’ to his touch as the latter needs to learn how to become the Black Swan.

Nina is determined to play both roles flawlessly. But her obsession with perfection exposes her already fragile mind, as well as her various insecurities. It is not long before reality and Nina’s perceptions of reality (hallucinations?) start to thread together to look like one and the same. Paranoia goes hand in hand with this too. A younger and, perhaps, even more beautiful girl, called Lily (Mila Kunis – Family Guy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Friends with Benefits), joins the company making Nina believe that she is going to be replaced as the lead performer. Consequently, Nina works ever harder, pushing herself to the brink (and beyond), in order to please and convince her demanding boss, Thomas (Vincent Cassels – La Haine, Derailed, Trance), that she is right for the dual role. Regardless of the personal cost.

The acting in Black Swan, across the board, is exceptional. Natalie Portman is without a doubt the star of the show. Portman captures the mental anguish that Nina goes through with remarkable consistency and concentration. One is never sure what mental state Nina is in, or what is real and what is not real with her. Portman is solely responsible for this and rightly deserves the credit.

This is not to say that Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey or Vincent Cassels do themselves an injustice; far from it. But Portman’s performance as Nina is Oscar-winning material. It has also finally enabled her to remove the shackles from her piteous performance as Padmé in Star Wars I, II and III. Yes, Portman’s performances in Closer and Brothers showed us that she had the potential to be a great actor, but in Black Swan she reveals that she has more than just mere potential with stunning effect.

Lily, played by Mila Kunis, looking beautiful despite having done some intense ballet practice.

It is not just the acting that is superb throughout the movie. The director, Darren Aranofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) has done the choreography and the music brilliantly too. As a result, just like in Pi and Requiem, the disturbing nature of Black Swan has the maximum effect upon the audience. (Think of the masturbation or the lesbian-sex scenes to mention but two.)

The travesty for Black Swan is that it is neither as intense nor as shocking as it should have been. It is certainly not in the same league as Requiem. Whilst Requiem is harrowingly realistic, Black Swan becomes a little farcical towards the end. This is a pity for cast and director alike. It is unlikely that Aranofsky, judging by his previous works, intended to turn this movie into a pantomime.

These are by no means the only flaws in Black Swan either. Although the film hints at how dedicated one must be to become a top ballerina, it fails to detail the positive aspects of the industry. Instead, the movie focuses upon many of the negative stereotypes, such as eating disorders and overbearing parents. (Apparently, much of these are out of date in the West.)

Black Swan is by no means an objective portrayal of the Ballet world. The film also lacks the jaw-dropping, stomach-churning ability of Requiem. Then again, Black Swan is still a very entertaining psychological thriller and is quite distressing. Moreover, the acting is of the highest quality. Few actors will better Natalie Portman’s performance over the coming year, and she rightly deserves the nominations and awards she is receiving. It is just a shame for her and Aranofsky that audiences have laughed more at the absurdity of Nina’s descent, than taken note of the possible consequences of obsession.

PG’s Tips