Friday, March 09, 2012

Safe House


This is a good movie, but sadly unambitious.  I’ve liked Denzel Washington all the way back to when I saw him as PFC Peterson in A Soldier’s Story in a first run theater.  Along the way, I think he’s been in a bunch of clunkers, particularly whenever he tries to do an action movie, but also lots of good things.  I’d particularly single out Fallen, since I’m one of about 16 people that actually saw it.  It’s not great, but it is interesting.
Here, he does his normal, very fine job.  I really wish I’d gotten to see him play James Bond at some point, because I think he would have been perfect for the pre-Daniel Craig style of Bond movies.  He just projects an aura of calm and unflappability.  I’d love to see him try out a role in which he’s manic, frantic and out of control, because I can’t remember seeing him do that, and it would be a change of pace.
I’d never seen Ryan Reynolds in anything.  Looking through his page at IMDb, the only things he’s been in that I’d heard of were movies that I actively avoided.  I may have to give some of them a try, because I thought he was fabulous.  What problems I have with his character derive entirely from the script and not his performance, and I’ll get to them in a moment.  Based upon his reactions, I really would have believed him as a CIA functionary thrust into action for the first time.
Safe House is a good suspense flick, but writer David Guggenheim seems to think that he’s achieving more than that.  The plot revolves around something that is meant to show deep corruption within the western world’s intelligence services.  Unfortunately, all it does is tell us about that.  It only shows it in the most overt ways.  There was a chance here to make a movie that really delved into the moral swamp that is intelligence work, but it never makes the connections necessary.
Early on, Washington’s character, Tobin Frost, is subjected to the interrogation/torture technique we’ve come to know as waterboarding.  Reynolds’ character, Matt Weston, has been sitting around for 12 months in a safe house, just keeping it ready for events that haven’t occurred until now.  He has no field experience at all.  Reynolds does a very good job portraying Weston as someone who is troubled by his first exposure to the sharp end of the stick. 
That feeling is promptly tossed out the window when it turns out that, despite having never actually done anything for the CIA, he is an expert in hand-to-hand combat, an incredible stunt driver, and totally cool under fire.  The feeling of inexperience gets blown away by a gale force wind.  It’s not Reynolds’ fault, but the character just doesn’t feel right.
This sort of ham handedness undermines anything profound that the movie is trying to accomplish.  I think The Constant Gardner is flawed in fundamental ways, but it is an example of taking this sort of thing seriously.  Doing so requires a deft touch and a willingness to tolerate, nay, encourage, ambiguity.  Guggenheim and director Daniel Espinosa are having none of that.  The character of Tobin Frost begs for it, but that promise is never delivered.  It would require an exploration of why he went rogue nine years prior to the movie, or at least some time dwelling on the things that he’s done to support himself in that interim.  Simply mentioning that there were things that make him something less than a purely white knight doesn’t cut it, and none of that depth is exhibited in the movie, in which it’s very clear who the good guys and bad guys are.
The character who is the leader of those bad guys for most of the movie, until his boss is revealed, has maybe three lines, all marginal.  He doesn’t even have much of a name, just Vargas.  It’s very hard to have a well rounded movie when the villains are just props. 
The ending is weak.  The script tries for poignancy, but it feels forced.  There are any number of ways that the story could have come to a conclusion that would have reinforced what it seems to want to do, but this isn’t it.  Here, too, the themes called for ambiguity that isn’t delivered.  There is a disconnect between the problems that envelop Matt Weston personally and the systemic problems that the creators drive up really close to without ever arriving.
Writers seem to think that their audience is scared of endings that don’t wrap everything up.  Maybe they’re right, but it’s too bad.  Art, including fiction, is much better at asking questions than it is at answering them.  People half realize this and frequently express the thought by complaining that a movie or novel is preachy.  They don’t grasp the real import of this statement, that fiction is a poor vehicle for giving clear cut answers. 
Because of this, many more stories should conclude in a way that does not tell you how the problem is ultimately resolved.  Not all of them, certainly, and perhaps not even most of them.  But many more of them should leave things unexplained than actually do.  In many stories, those final scenes don’t add anything to what the author is trying to say.  Frequently, they serve only to muddle things.  Clarity in plot should not be mistaken for clarity in theme.  Rather, these are often in conflict with each other.  The themes of Safe House are bigger than the plot can be, and insisting on boundaries on the latter must mean that the former is penned in too small an enclosure.

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