May 2024


serial killer

Child 44 (2015)

889372DIRECTOR: Daniel Espinosa

CAST: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Joel Kinnaman, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Jason Clarke, Vincent Cassel, Charles Dance


Adapting a book can be a tricky task; change too much and outrage its adherents, but follow the text too slavishly and risk a sluggish motion picture. Book and film are different mediums and should be treated as such.  With its myriad subplots and in-depth exploration of life in the 1950s Soviet Union, Tom Rob Smith’s best-selling historical crime novel (loosely inspired by the case of 1980s Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo) doesn’t lend itself to being inherently cinematic, and director Daniel Espinosa and screenwriter Richard Price’s attempt to bring it to the screen is sometimes murky, scattershot, and difficult to follow.  However, while a flawed film, Child 44 is not the outright disaster that its status as a dismal box office flop would indicate (the film barely played in only 500 theaters before quickly disappearing from them, delaying this review from its limited and short-lived theatrical release in April until it became available on DVD and online streaming in late July).  There’s still plenty of intrigue here, and for those interested in a murder mystery against the historical backdrop of the Stalin-era Soviet Union, Child 44 is worth giving a chance. Continue reading

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)


CAST: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson, Steven Berkoff, Geraldine James, Yorick van Wageningen


I’ll just get this out of the way right upfront. I have never seen the 2009 Swedish film adaptation of late author and journalist Stieg Larsson’s crime novel, which featured a much-praised performance by Noomi Rapace in the title role (nor have I read the book), so this review will not include any comparisons between the two versions, merely evaluate this one on its own merits. Continue reading

Mr. Brooks (2007)

DIRECTOR: Bruce A. Evans

CAST: Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, William Hurt, Dane Cook, Marg Helgenberger, Danielle Panabaker, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Lindsay Crouse


According to star/producer Kevin Costner, Mr. Brooks was conceived as the first film in a trilogy, but in the wake of modest box-office earnings, whether or not any other installments will get the greenlight is up in the air.  That’s kind of a shame, because Mr. Brooks is actually a lot of fun: a deliciously devious little thriller that combines plenty of twists and turns with a macabre sense of humor. Continue reading

Disturbia (2007)

DIRECTOR: D. J. Caruso


Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Sarah Roemer, Carrie-Anne Moss, Aaron Yoo, Viola Davis, Matt Craven


The sole crediting of Disturbia’s script to Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye) and Christopher Landon seems a little disingenuous, as the movie is as obviously an updated Rear Window as they come.  While Ellsworth, Landon, and director D.J. Caruso (who would later reunite with Shia LaBeouf in Eagle Eye) don’t improve on the standard storyline, they at least keep it for the most part engaging and entertaining, and inject a measure of freshness into an oft-imitated basic plot.

We open with a father-son bonding moment between Kale Brecht (Shia LaBeouf) and his dad (Matt Craven) as they fly-fish in the picturesque great outdoors, that’s just a little too postcard-perfect/cutesy, like a scene off a Hallmark card, before Dad is brutally wiped off the screen in a startlingly abrupt car crash that goes from bad to worse. A year later, Kale is a juvenile delinquent who pays little attention to his grades, and commits a felony when he punches his Spanish teacher for bringing up his dad during a lecture on his bad behavior. As the last chance before going to jail, Kale is placed under house arrest and fitted with an ankle bracelet that alerts the police if he sets foot outside his yard. After a few days of video games which his Mom (Carrie-Anne Moss) blocks, swimsuit commercials (which Mom thwarts by severing the TV’s power cord), and junk food, visited only by his friend Ronny (Aaron Yoo), Kale starts spying on the neighbors out of boredom, especially new arrival Ashley (Sarah Roemer), who eventually catches him and joins in the neighborhood watch. For a while, things are harmless enough, until Kale starts to suspect his neighbor Mr. Turner (David Morse) of being a serial killer.

One thing that might surprise some viewers is the amount of time Disturbia takes to kick in with the thriller aspect. For a while, it seems to try to lull us into thinking it’s a teen romantic comedy, with only background television reports about a missing woman hinting at the danger to come. While Rear Window starts gradually, with Jimmy Stewart’s wheelchair-bound voyeur observing bickering couples and lonely spinsters, Kale and his accomplices watch the neighbor fooling around with the maid while the wife’s gone, and plot revenge against the brats who leave flaming poop on his doorstep. Fortunately, D.J. Caruso and Shia LaBeouf manage to keep all this entertaining- for the most part, so we’re not twiddling our thumbs waiting for LaBeouf to get menaced by David Morse. LaBeouf is not a spectacular actor, but he’s an appealing and energetic one, with the same kind of affable boy-next-door presence that made John Cusack so popular in ‘80s teen romantic comedies, and has a few more memorable moments scattered around, including an awkward, strangely sweet confession scene that could almost have come out of a John Hughes/John Cusack movie.

That Disturbia is designed as a Generation X version of Rear Window brings both pros and cons. Given that today’s teens (and younger) are embracing technology their parents find mind-boggling, it makes sense that Kale and company would use cell phones, digital cameras, and live video feed to spy on Mr. Turner. But packaging Disturbia to appeal to the young crowd also means it loses a little intelligence and depth. The level to which LaBeouf and the filmmakers portray Kale’s issues with his father’s death is inconsistent; he starts as a sullen delinquent, but for the rest of the movie he shows little of the edginess hinted at early on, and in fact the entire matter of his father’s death is pretty much forgotten about after a few perfunctory mentions. The movie toys half-heartedly with the possibility that Kale might, out of a combination of paranoia and boredom, be letting his imagination run away with him, but the possibility is never seriously explored, and Mr. Turner is shot as such a hulking, ominous presence that we never really buy that he might just be a shy, misunderstood regular guy.

Shia LaBeouf has an affable presence, and makes Kale a likable everyman protagonist, which is important, especially since we spend significant set-up time following him on his daily (mis)adventures before we get into thriller territory. Sarah Roemer and Aaron Yoo provide adequate support. The movie takes time to give Kale and Ashley’s relationship a little more development than a perfunctory subplot. In teen-oriented movies like this, the adults seldom get much to do, and Disturbia isn’t an exception.  David Morse lurks ominously in windows and shadowy garages and—when he’s finally seen up close and gets anything to say—drops vaguely threatening hints like “I like my privacy”.  Carrie-Anne Moss gets the thankless role of the often-exasperated mother who drifts in and out of scenes as required by the plot, until the climax when she segues into the equally thankless role of a damsel in distress (for someone who was still kicking ass and looking great while doing it in The Matrix sequels a mere four years ago, it’s a little sad to see Moss already being relegated to throwaway “Mom” roles).

In the last half-hour or so, Disturbia pulls out the stops. There’s the mother trapped by serial killer, creaky doors, dark hallways and underground dungeon-like lairs, faces in windows, sinister figures revealed by lightning flashes, and a series of surefire “boo!” moments. Even those who think Disturbia takes too long to get into the thick of the action will mostly be satisfied by the finale.

Disturbia is not a classic thriller like the one it “borrows” from, but Shia LaBeouf is a likable and engaging protagonist, the movie never fails to be entertaining, and it wraps up with a few scenes guaranteed to get jolts out of the audience. In the thriller genre, there are a few better, but more that are much, much worse.

* * *

Zodiac (2007)

zodiacDIRECTOR: David Fincher

CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Edwards, Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox, Elias Koteas, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall, John Carroll Lynch


While it tells the true unsolved story of one of America’s most notorious serial killers–at least that which is publicly known–Zodiac is not a thriller, at least not in a conventional sense.  Rather, it’s a police procedural and docudrama.  Based on a true crime book by Robert Graysmith, it puts the focus not on Zodiac himself, who remains a shadowy, elusive, nameless and faceless figure (although the movie’s viewpoint is blatantly slanted toward one suspect), but on the men (including Graysmith himself) who were involved in the long-running, ultimately fruitless manhunt.  To this end, Zodiac is a bit like a souped-up, two-and-a-half hour episode of Law & Order, and will appeal to some of the same audience fascinated by the details of police procedure and investigating.  It depicts the above with slick polish and is often intriguing, but an uneven pace and the inevitable open ending will frustrate some viewers not strongly interested in the subject matter. Continue reading

Red Dragon (2002)

DIRECTOR: Brett Ratner


Edward Norton, Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anthony Heald, Bill Duke


Following in the footsteps of 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs and 2001’s Hannibal, 2002’s Red Dragon was purported to complete the Hannibal Lecter ‘trilogy’ (but then came the ill-conceived flop Hannibal Rising, detailing Hannibal’s childhood and thus removing the last shred of the character’s enigma- and whose bright idea was it to try to make a Hannibal Lecter movie without Anthony Hopkins?). Actually, Red Dragon is a remake of 1986’s Manhunter, which was itself an adaptation of author Thomas Harris’ book Red Dragon, the first to feature the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, meaning although it was the last made, Red Dragon is chronologically the first in the series.

Continue reading

Hannibal (2001)

DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott


Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Giancarlo Giannini, Ray Liotta, Gary Oldman, Frankie Faison, Zeljko Ivanek, David Andrews


As a follow-up to 1991’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal was one of the most anticipated movies of 2001, but its journey from Thomas Harris’ page to the screen was a tumultuous one. Continue reading

Switchback (1997)


Jeb Stuart


Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover, Jared Leto, R. Lee Ermey, Ted Levine, William Fichtner, Leo Burmester


Unlike most entries in the serial killer/thriller genre, Switchback moves at a leisurely pace, relying more on character development than jolts, but it’s a solid effort that sets itself apart from standards of the genre in some ways yet is a worthy entry among them. Continue reading

Kiss the Girls (1997)

DIRECTOR: Gary Fleder


Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Cary Elwes, Tony Goldwyn, Alex McArthur, Bill Nunn, Jay O. Sanders, William Converse-Roberts, Brian Cox, Jeremy Piven, Gina Ravera, Richard T. Jones, Roma Maffia



Crime author James Patterson is a bit like the dime novels you might snatch up at the airport; he doesn’t churn out the stuff of Shakespeare, but it’s a quick, easy read, brisk and compulsively page-turning.  Likewise, Kiss the Girls is such a film, a decent little mystery thriller that provides a brisk couple of hours when looking for something reasonably diverting.  It’s bolstered by a couple of strong lead performances, but one feels a more stylish, atmospheric director like David Fincher (who helmed the darker and more disturbing Se7en, also starring Morgan Freeman) could have done more with the material than the TV-movie look and feel of the comparatively nondescript Gary Fleder. Continue reading

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Demme


Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Diane Baker, Brooke Smith, Chris Isaak, Charles Napier, Daniel von Bargen


Few cinematic villains are a source of as much morbid fascination as Hannibal Lecter. Like the heroine Clarice Starling, we are frightened and disturbed by him, and yet we are too intrigued to turn our eyes away. Dr. Lecter is undoubtebly the character best-remembered from the psychological thriller The Silence of the Lambs, and the acclaim showered on Anthony Hopkins for his Oscar-winning performance sometimes threatens to overshadow Jodie Foster’s also Oscar-winning lead role as FBI trainee Clarice Starling, a fine performance and a well-developed character in her own right. Clarice and Hannibal are two of the strongest characters ever written and acted in a horror movie, and they are given a script that does them justice, a dark, intelligent thriller that relies much less on blood and guts than on well-honed characterizations, a few scenes of indelible purely verbal interactions, and a vivid sense of atmosphere. All of these elements combined to make The Silence of the Lambs a classic of the thriller genre and earned it five Academy Awards in 1991. Continue reading