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Review: “The Strangers” (2008)

strangers2

Evil creeps up on Liv Tyler in Bryan Bertino's eerie "The Strangers."

With horror movies, particularly 21st-century ones, sometimes it’s better to ask “is this film effective?” and not “is this film original?” Because truth be told, there’s not much new and different about “The Strangers,” Bryan Bertino’s lean and mostly capable thriller. The whole “we’re not safe in our own homes” concept? It’s been done before better, and we’ve seen these characters creep under windows and cry a thousand times.

So “The Strangers” doesn’t get high marks for originality. But when a horror movie this spare and gripping juices your nerves like electrical wires, innovation’s something of a moot point. What Bertino lacks in originality he more than makes up for in execution. This is a director who understands that fear of the unknown and the tension that fear creates are what keep us up nights starting at every floorboard creak. Bertino builds this anxiety to unbearable levels using horror standards — the face emerging from the shadows, a car rendered useless by flat tires, the old peel-back-the-curtain-and-boo! — that get us squirming uneasily in our seats right up to the purely stupid ending. 

“Tension” — that’s the watchword here. The film’s first act is all about tension, starting with the shaky relationship between Kristen (Liv Tyler, a fine scream queen) and James (Scott Speedman). The pair’s headed to his parents’ remote vacation home, and it’s clear early that something’s a little off-kilter. Things only get more awkward when they arrive at the house — turns out James expected a different answer to his marriage proposal. The house is filled with champagne and rose petals, all the trappings of a giddy engagement. Somehow Tyler and Speedman, B-level actors at best, capture the pain and strangeness surrounding this relationship speedbump beautifully, relying more on defeated facial expressions and body language than dialogue (in short supply here). They’ve hit a wall, they know it and they don’t know where to go next, or if they care enough to keep trying. There’s something sadly universal in that struggle that endears Kristen and James to us, makes them real people and not just bodies to be dispatched messily into the afterlife.

But don’t go fretting that there’s no action here and no bloodshed. After the sometimes-too-languid setup, “The Strangers” packs plenty of thrills, shrieks and spatters into the second half. Bertino brings on mayhem in the form of three masked intruders who proceed to unleash a hailstorm of psychological torment on Kristen and James. These mind games are the film’s meat. It’s the little moments, like the moved smoke detector, the missing cell phone charger and the doorknob rattles, that start to unglue Kristen and James. That sense of security a locked door and a security system provide go all to hell, and we can’t help but get dragged along.

Then “The Strangers” moves from mental to physical torture, and, well, that’s right about where things go a little sour. The characters start to do predictably illogical, dumb things — some mind-bogglingly so — simply because the plot requires them to. (Perhaps Bertino would have us believe fear makes logical people develop the I.Q. of sea kelp.) There’s more than one let’s-split-up moment that’s laughable. As the end approaches, “The Strangers” starts a downward spiral toward an end that is so outrageously over-the-top and contrived that it feels like it belongs in a vastly different and inferior film. The finale is an insult to our intelligence — except for the strangers’ frightening explanation of why they targeted Kristen and James — and it’s lazy to boot. 

Does the end ruin “The Strangers”? It comes close, damn close, but the movie’s first half works perfectly as an intense psychological thriller, with Bertino shining an unwelcome light on that primordial human fear: that anyone can get to us anywhere at any time. And for much of the film this new director has the good sense to let tension run amock and let his actors run with it. Bertino would do well to revisit this strategy if he hopes to become anything more than a fifth-rate John Carpenter.

Grade: C

Review: “Lonesome Jim” (2005)

Lonesome_JimEntitlement, sad sackery and ennui seem to be the defining characteristics of that spiritual dead zone that exists between ages 25 and 30 these days. Consider Jim (Casey Affleck) the perfect spokesman for his people. A self-proclaimed creative type/writer who never manages to be creative or write anything, the 27-year-old shuffles home to Indiana after discovering Random House does not hand you a publishing contract the day you arrive in the Big Apple. So Jim finds himself back at home with Mom (Mary Kay Place) and Dad (Seymour Casesl) possessed of no will to live but less desire to pull the “goodbye, cruel world” card.

Right about now, “Lonesome Jim” is starting to sound like a grim, tedious, moody affair. And, truth be told, that’s sort of what it is for about 70 minutes. But there’s one excellent reason to stick around, and his name is Steve Buscemi. (Tempted as I am to repeat my Steve Buscemi rule, I will abstain.) As an actor, he’s got a talent for finding quirks that make his characters memorable. When he’s directing, he uses the camera to find those idiosyncracies, insightful lines and quiet moments. Buscemi doesn’t rush his actors or his movie, so things unfold without much fanfare. The slow pacing isn’t for everyone, but “Lonesome Jim” rewards anyone patient enough to look closer with a laconic but affecting character study.

The character in question, Jim, is tailor-made for Casey Affleck, a budding actor who deserves no comparison to his more famous brother. Much like Buscemi, he underacts religiously, almost to the point of seeming catatonic. Which, you see, is the point — Jim is no fun to be around. He believes he’s a writer, but he barely tries and still seems put off by his lack of success. (Apparently he missed that whole “you miss 90 percent of the shots you don’t take” movement.) Jim even manages to see himself as superior to his family, particularly his divorced brother Tim (Kevin Corrigan), whom he calls a “goddamn tragedy,” and his manic-or-just-really-cheerful? mother, whose $20 bills he lifts from her purse. Even meeting Anika (Liv Tyler), a kind-hearted single mother who seems to like him, doesn’t seem to affect him that much. Anything less than abject misery is unthinkable to him. Somehow, though, he starts to change so gradually it’s almost invisible.

And here’s where the infamous Buscemi touch comes in. He makes Jim’s move from mournful lump to human being subtle but blackly funny. This guy needs outside forces to help him grow, and Buscemi gives him a whole mess of odd personalities who facilitate this change. Anika, of course, is key. When Jim’s relationship with her starts to grow a pulse, he asks her: “There’s so many fun and cheery people in the world. Don’t you think you’d be better off with one of them?” That she’s influenced him to ask himself that question is progress, a move from self-absorption to self-awareness. Tyler plays Anika not as a doormat but as a helper who sees potential in Jim.

Other characters make “Lonesome Jim” an insightful little movie. Take Jim’s mom Sally (Place, always wonderful), whose cheerful front belies her own unhappiness. Note her weary reaction to Jim’s decision to move to New Orleans — her line delivery is note-perfect. As Jim’s drug-dealing uncle “Evil,” Mark Boone Jr. serves up most of the film’s humor, the best being his conviction that hookers are cheaper than girlfriends. He tries to get Jim to loosen up, but mainly he sets events in motion that force the slacker to wake the hell up. Affleck, mop-topped and sporting perpetual facial scruff, gives us small glimpses into these changes. He’s all about facial expressions, and here they are so illusive as to rival Zach Braff’s in “Garden State.” Jim’s not the same guy in the end that he was in the beginning, and Affleck’s transition is practically seamless.

And speaking of the end: It will enrage some but enlighten others. Simple, ephemeral and barely hopeful (or is it?) — it’s classic Buscemi. He pares “Lonesome Jim” to the bone, and that’s why it leaves a lasting impression.

Grade: B