“A mental mindfuck can be nice.” No offense to Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his pithy one-liner, but that all depends on how evenly matched the partners are. It’s not so much fun to watch a plainly unbalanced faceoff (like the ferocious “Swimming with Sharks”). And initially that’s just what “Interview” looks like: an unfair fight. Buscemi’s Pierre is a serious political correspondent whose wartime credentials don’t shield him from a fluff assignment: a story on blonde starlet Katya (Sienna Miller), famous for being famous. He has battle scars; she has a string of roles in B slasher films. The victor of this battle of wits would seem … predetermined.
Think again. Buscemi is not a director who writes surface-level people, and he is not an actor who plays them, either. He excels with characters who are deeper than they appear to be — sometimes in dangerous, disquieting ways. Because Katya and Pierre are American and not Dutch, like those in the original film by the late Theo van Gogh, Buscemi shapes them into types we know all too well: the vapid paparazzi darling and the self-important journalist. But he tweaks them enough that specks of humanity crop up occasionally, pushing the boredom and the disgust aside. As “Interview” progresses, the little human kindnesses fly out the window once Pierre realizes that Katya relishes a good verbal/psychological jousting match as much as he does. And she may be better at the sport than he ever dreamed possible.
Being a small film containing a main cast of a whopping two actors, “Interview” will not appeal to the adrenaline junkies. The action is minimal; the talking never stops. But psychological warfare depends on disarming the opponent with words selected to affect maximum emotional damage. So the talking, to those paying attention, builds in intensity until it’s exhilarating. At the first meeting, things are strained (that’s putting it mildly) — Katya breezes in an hour late, taking no notice of Pierre’s seething anger. She doesn’t bother to feign interest in the interview, so he doesn’t bother to conceal his contempt for the woman he’s pigeonholed as a talking sex toy. He has done no preparation, and instead of hiding that he lords it over Katya. Both exit in anger (“Cunt-ya!” Pierre spits out), each wishing gruesome fates upon the other. Then a freak cab crunch-up leaves Pierre with a head wound, and Katya, whose loft is nearby, takes pity on him. Once he’s inside her territory, though, the gloves come off and the emotional pistol whipping begins. He’s grossly underestimated her self-awareness, and assumes that she is deaf to sarcasm. She is not: “You have to feel sorry for me. I mean, I probably have silicone for brains.”
The game turns nastier from there, with Pierre snooping on Katya’s laptop and finding a secret impressive enough to help him turn this puff piece into an expose. Her reaction to his digging leads him to believe he’s hit pay dirt. But it’s tricky, dirty business playing Truth or Dare with an actress, and when Katya demands Pierre unpack a few skeletons from his own closet he makes himself unwisely vulnerable. The back-and-forth would be tedious if not for the ever-changing behavior of the characters. They have more in common than they’d care to admit, with Pierre acting as something of a chameleon to get at the bankable truth. As a journalist he’s done this thousands of times but convinces himself that behavior had a nobler purpose. Miller’s Katya is no less manipulative, and her erratic behavior — uncontrollable laughter one minute, towering rage the next — keeps us guessing at her motives. Buscemi and Miller are about as a sublime a pair as we could hope for — no one looks wearier or more derisive than Steve Buscemi, and Miller is attractive in that vapid, slightly nutty, damaged Lindsay Lohan way. They couldn’t be an odder pair, and for once their distaste for one another does not give way to mattress gymnastics. “Interview,” instead, smacks into an Twist Ending that’s possibly a little too Hollywood and a definitely a little too unrealistic. But since “Interview” is like real life, only more dramatic, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.