Tuesday, October 9, 2007


This is the single best almost-horror movie of the year. More than that, I would maintain that it is the best movie William Friedkin has made since The Exorcist, a claim which admittedly is not quite as bold as it first sounds. You owe it to yourself to check this out.

The film is based on a play, and while that can sometimes be a liability, here its origins work perfectly. By limiting the cast to only two main roles and two supporting ones, and keeping the film largely confined to one small motel room, it provides the film with a focus and tension that, unable to dissipate, instead just keeps building and building to its increasingly inevitable, tragic conclusion.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: despite an incredibly misleading ad campaign, this is not a horror movie about deadly bugs. What it is is a nerve-wracking psychological thriller about a woman (Ashley Judd) living a miserable existence who meets a man (Michael Shannon) that seems nice if weird, and by the time his own madness really begins developing in full she’s already fallen for him and is fully receptive to joining him in his spiraling insanity. The final half hour of the film, particularly, as they’ve barricaded themselves in their motel room (now covered from wall to wall in aluminum foil to somehow protect them from the government), obsessed with a possible government-created deadly bug that they believe is infesting their bodies, is so incredibly tense that, when I saw it in theaters back in May, I was almost unable to bear to watch. It is in every way like watching the birth of a conspiracy theory, as, with Shannon’s prodding, Judd begins to connect the bugs with every tragedy in her life, from her abusive ex-husband to her long vanished child, to shadowy government conspiracies and political assassinations. It’s a panicky, nightmarish scenario, and if Judd and Shannon weren’t such gifted actors, and willing to take such great risks for their art, it would have fallen to pieces. As it stands, though, they show themselves to be superior actors, and manage to make this one of the greatest films of the year.

My emphasis on the final third of the film does not mean that the rest of the film isn’t as strong, mind you. Indeed, right from the start of the film we can already see there are problems. Judd’s violent ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.), fresh out of prison, feels free to saunter into her room like their relationship is just going to instantly start up again, and is more than a little unhappy with her when she doesn’t feel the same way. Judd’s life outside of him isn’t that great either; it’s not a very good sign when you’re having vodka and Cokes with breakfast. While most of the film’s brutality is emotional and psychological, there is also one moment halfway through the film that is just squirm-inducing, even for someone as jaded about film violence as I am.

It’s a terrifying film, all things considered, not because you’re afraid someone else is going to hurt them, but that in their shared madness they’re going to hurt themselves. It’s an emotional dervish that completely upends you and will leave you drained and exhausted by the end. You need to see this film.

Rating: ****

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