Monday, June 21, 2010

Unthinkable DVD review



Mainstream movie audiences don't seem particularly receptive to films about the war on terror, particularly when it comes to the topic of torture. It's a point well-made by Gregory Burris, in this month's CineAction, in a very interesting re-evaluation of "torture porn" cinema - particularly the Hostel movies, which I also admire. Burris claims - rightly so - that these films, more than anything else at the box office, represent moviegoers' most significant engagement (in many cases on a deep and unacknowledged level) with the realities and "contemporary relevance" of torture; it is very significant, he thinks, that the Hostel and Saw franchises should be such hits, compared to the "dismal box-office failure of 'war on terror'-themed message films like In the Valley of Elah (2007), Lions For Lambs (2007) and Rendition (2007)." (He neglects to mention Brian De Palma's contribution to the fray, Redacted, which is nastier and angrier than these three films by far - but was also a box office failure; or the critical hit The Hurt Locker, which, as far as I know, didn't get a large audience until after it won an Oscar - if then). There may be reasons for the reluctance to engage with such films beyond denial of the realities of the war on terror, however - such as mere inundation by other means; biased and inaccurate as it may be, media coverage of 9/11, terrorism, Iraq, Abu Ghraib and so forth has been pervasive enough that one doesn't necessarily hanker to see fictionalized accounts of same, and may well even mistrust them, perceiving them as an attempt to exploit issues that are "too important" to trivialize (or monetize) with a fictional treatment. I certainly felt that way about Rendition, which is basically "Maher Arar for dummies." It is undoubtedly well-crafted, well-acted, reasonably entertaining, and more-or-less politically sympathetic, and I have nothing against that film per se, but having read about the Maher Arar case at some length, I just didn't really need the story fed back to me in a simplified, fictionalized, and thus amply distorted form. Maybe for the great unwashed it's useful as an educational experience, in the same way Brokeback Mountain or the works of Oliver Stone are sometimes said to be useful, but I've never been entirely convinced that cinema should be used this way. People too ignorant, apathetic or stupid to have grasped such issues as these films deal with in reality might "get it" if spoonfed, but who cares? It's not like they'll be radicalized by such experiences. They'll just sit blinking in front of the TV for a minute after it's over, maybe mutter a "tut-tut," then change the channels... Big fuckin' deal...
Anyhow, feeling thus, I didn't rent Unthinkable right away, when it was released last week on DVD. Reading that it's about the moral issues that arise around the interrogation of an American scientist turned terrorist, I shuddered and set the box back on the shelf. It would no doubt be, I felt, either reactionary, torture-justifying bullshit (a la 24, which HAS proven a successful audience-getter, disturbingly enough), or a simplified spoonfeeding, perhaps with an aura of liberal self-congratulation (see how enlightened we are for disapproving of these horrible things? Isn't torture awful?). Neither possibility seemed interesting as cinema - or politically or morally useful; at the very best, I figured, Unthinkable would be simply unnecessary - with a wide range of less favourable possibilities coming to mind. Perhaps that's why it was given very scanty theatrical distribution or press - it never played Vancouver, is not listed on Rotten Tomatoes, was not reviewed by Roger Ebert, has no website of its own, and for all purposes might as well be a "direct to DVD" release, appearing on shelves last Tuesday with no previous fanfare, no promotion, no nothin'...

Here's the news, then: for what it is - a suspense thriller dealing with serious issues in the language of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking - it's utterly great. Not only is the writing superb - no spoonfeeding going on here - but the principals (including Samuel L. Jackson, in what could be a career high as a sort of black ops uber-torturer, Carrie Ann Moss as a well-meaning FBI agent, Michael Sheen as the military scientist-turned-terrorist, and Martin Donovan as an FBI higher-up) are terrific, and the story presented in a gripping and thought-provoking fashion, with the only misstep (a relatively weak ending) being taken care of in the Special Features (which has an "alternate ending" that is really the only proper way to resolve the film). It seems more or less to be an intelligent fictionalization of an argument we have all heard a billion times: you have a terrorist prisoner, he has planted bombs, you can potentially save millions of lives if you find the locations of these bombs, and he is unwilling to cooperate: do you torture him or not? (And once you cross that line, how far should you be prepared to go?). Pretty much every intelligent response to this scenario is fictionalized and contained in this film, which is serious enough in its treatment and sufficiently provocative that it could be used as a discussion starter for an ethics class (I mean, it ain't The Battle Of Algiers, but it's damn good). It's the second really strong "new arrival" I've encountered this week, and like The Cry Of The Owl (see below) has received next-to-no fanfare. So I'm happy to give it a plug: it's a very interesting piece of cinema that will definitely hold your attention - assuming, of course, you can stomach the grimness of it; it's not exactly a feelgood movie, y'know?

I have nothing much else to say about Unthinkable - though I would lay dollars-to-donuts that the original screenplay made mention of the state of Israel, which was then removed from the film, as too much of a hot potato. That wee copout notwithstanding, for people interested in well-thought out suspense thrillers that take on moral issues of the day, it's a must-see; remember to watch the alternate ending - if you skip to it as soon as the credits roll, you can pretend it's the real ending of the film.

2 comments:

brentwittmeier.com said...

Just watched this as well. I guess it all depends on that crucial caveat - "for what it is."

The principles ARE great (I also like Stephen Root but I differ on Moss), but the film ends up awash in too many "oh no you didn't just do that, Samuel Jackson!" moments.

You have the terrorist, the torturer, and the two agencies. Add a straightforward plot with references to recent headlines. Okay.

So why waste so much time with a second set of functionally similar characters and their extended families? It just clutters things and results in too many unconvincing, cartoonish, and occasionally precious moments as these characters swoop in at random with no rationale. Like the children hugging Moss (*shudder*) or the crazy gun wielding bureaucrat.

This is a pretty low budget film (rent a high school). Unthinkable's greatest strengths should have been a small cast (read: Jackson), a personable protagonist, and a series of increasingly ambiguous dilemmas. Instead, it meanders and stutters a bit too much, even for what it is.

ammacinn said...

Didn't think it "meandered" or "stuttered" much at all - the gun weilding bureaucrat was pretty silly, it's true, but I think I liked it a bit more than you... As mainstream thrillers go, it's one of the better ones I've seen this year...

...but it doesn't seem to merit THAT much discussion, so...