Category Archives: Independent Thriller Films

Nancy-2018

Nancy-2018

Director-Christina Coe

Starring-Andrea Riseborough

Scott’s Review #941

Reviewed October 1, 2019

Grade: B+

Part of why I love independent cinema so much is the freedom given the director to simply tell a good story of his or her choosing, usually with little studio interference or opinions. Nancy (2018) is a good example of this as Christina Choe writes and directs a film that is simply hers to share. A quiet film about loneliness, the need to belong, and connect with others are main elements in a compelling and unpredictable story.

Existing in a barren small town in upstate New York, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) bears weather that is cold, damp and bleak. Working a temporary office job where the staff barely remembers her from her previous stint, Nancy spends her down time caring for her ill mother (Ann Dowd) and playing with her cat, Pete. When an occurrence leaves her vulnerable, she sees a news report featuring a couple whose daughter disappeared thirty years ago, and looks exactly like Nancy, given the sometimes-dishonest woman an idea.

Riseborough carries the film with a strong performance, but not exactly a character the audience easily roots for. Nancy is not unkind, dutifully tending to her mother’s needs when she is not being pleasant. She pretends to be pregnant to meet an internet support group man who lost a child and seeks comfort in Nancy. Hoping for a romance or at least a human connection, the two runs into each other, and when the man realizes her scheme, he calls her psycho. We witness a range of subtle facial expressions revealing the complicated character which Riseborough provides brilliantly.

Choe tells a very humanistic story that is peppered with deep feelings and emotions easy for the audience to relate to. Conflicted views will resound between the three principle characters; Nancy, Leo Lynch (Steve Buscemi), and wife Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron). The Lynch’s, especially Ellen, are vulnerable, yearning for a glimmer of hope that their long-lost daughter, surely dead, is alive. So, the complexities that the director provides work exceptionally well with keeping the emotional level very high.

All three principle actors do a fine job, Smith-Cameron being rewarded with a Film Independent award nomination. She is the most conflicted of the three and the character audiences will ultimately fall in love with and feel much empathy for. Has Buscemi ever played a nicer man? I think not as the actor so often plays villainous or grizzled so well. With Leo, he is rationale, thoughtful and skeptical of the story Nancy spins. He adores Ellen and does not want to see her disappointed yet again, the pain apparent on both their faces. Many quiet and palpable subtleties are possessed by the cast.

The locale in the film is also a high point. Presumably January or February, the cold and angry air fills the screen, adding a measure of hopelessness that each character suffers from in a different way. Numerous scenes of the outdoors are featured, and compelling moments provided. When a pretty snowfall coats the land, this is a tease, as one character’s hopes are ultimately dashed. A cheery landscape such as California or Florida would not have worked as well in this film.

Nancy (2018) is a film that risks turning some viewers off with its unhappy nature and slow pace, but isn’t this much better than a fast-paced Hollywood popcorn film? To me the answer is obvious, and Nancy is a prime example of why little films should be celebrated and revered by the film industry and its enthusiasts. Lies and truths cross a fine line and the potent psychological thriller will leave viewers mesmerized as event progress.

You Were Never Really Here-2018

You Were Never Really Here-2018

Director-Lynne Ramsay

Starring-Joaquin Phoenix

Scott’s Review #932

Reviewed August 19, 2019

Grade: A-

You Were Never Really Here (2018) is an independent psychological thriller most reminiscent in tone and texture to the legendary Scorsese film, Taxi Driver (1976). The main characters are worlds apart, but the plot and the trimmings are clearly influenced by the classic, just amid a different time-period (the present).

A terrific and brooding performance by star Joaquin Phoenix leads the charge, as does fantastic direction by Lynne Ramsay, and the editing team, as the dark film is an unusual and impressive choice for a female director. Snippets of cinematic genius exist during a film that, with a more complete package, might have been a masterpiece.

We first meet Joe (Phoenix) somewhere in Ohio as, we learn, he is a hired gun sent to rescue underage girls from sex trafficking rings. He is brutal in his methods of rescue, resorting to gruesome murders to complete his assignments, and is paid handsomely. Back in New York City, he cares for his elderly mother whom he adores, and is contacted to rescue Nina, the daughter of a New York State Senator, Albert Votto for an enormous sum of money. When Joe rescues Nina and waits for Votto, events quickly spin out of control and a sinister web of deception is revealed.

When you look at the story that You Were Never Really There tells, it is one that has been told many times before, typically in slick Hollywood conventional standards. Angry ex-military unleashes brutality on devious criminals, rescues girl, and returns her safely to the open arms of her awaiting parents. Fortunately, the film is more thoughtful than that, adding complexity with the Joe and Nina relationship, and a stylistic, poetic quality featuring Joe’s relationship with his mother.

The plot is paced very well so that the events occur only over the course of a day or two, and the film is highly unconventional and dark. Frequent flashbacks give the film mystique as we see both Joe and his mother abused by Joe’s father, as a young Joe hides in a closet and hyperventilates. Now an adult, Joe is suicidal, frequently fantasizing or practicing his own death until he is interrupted.

As grisly as the film can be, beautiful and tender moments are laden throughout as Ramsay provides gorgeous style and humanity. A homoerotic moment occurs when Joe lies next to the man who has killed his mother. As the man is close to death at the hands of Joe, they hold hands as Joe provides comfort to the man in death. Joe then buries his mother in a pond in upstate New York, providing her with a peaceful final resting place. These are unique scenes that feel almost like an art film.

The conclusion is open-ended leaving lots of questions; Joe and Nina appear to ride off into the sunset together, but what will they do? What is to become of them? Surely, not a romantic element can be found, but where will they go from here? Both characters appear to have nothing left to hang on to other than each other, but is this sustainable? The film is not the type that is poised for a sequel, but I would be very curious what Ramsay has planned for her characters.

Joe is not portrayed as wicked, he is too complex for that. Phoenix, a tremendous actor, perfectly infuses the character with brutality and anger, but also a tenderness and a warmth. The aspects between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver: the grizzled New York portrayals, the political backdrop, and the main characters saving a woeful young girl from the depths of despair, make the two film’s comparable. However, Joe and Travis Bickle are opposites, the latter having a frenetic humor that the former lacks.

Ramsay has been around for a while with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) her most prominent film. She is successful at telling stories about deeply troubled individuals who are good people handed awful circumstances. With a tremendous actor like Phoenix on board, she crafts a solid work that has provided You Were Never Really Here (2018) with accolades, at least among the indie critics. Ramsay seems poised to break out in a big way and shake up the film industry with future works.

Lizzie-2018

Lizzie-2018

Director-Craig Macneill

Starring-Chloe Sevigny, Kristen Stewart

Scott’s Review #925

Reviewed July 31, 2019

Grade: B+

Lizzie (2018) is an odd and macabre interpretation of the life and times of the infamous Lizzie Borden, who was accused and acquitted of hacking her father and stepmother to bits with a deadly axe. This offering is shrouded in a bit of controversy for inaccuracies and interpretations of the events, specifically Borden’s sexuality called into question. The film is quiet and a tad too slow but thunders to a grand climax more than making up for any negatives. The casting of its leads is perfect and key to success.

Thirty-two-year old Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) lives with her domineering and affluent father Andrew, (Jamey Sheridan), and rigid stepmother, Abby (Fiona Shaw). Despising both, she lives out a lonely and depressed existence with her only outlet being occasional evenings out at the theater. When an Irish immigrant, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), moves in to the Borden residence to work as a servant the women form a strong bond especially after she is abused by Andrew.

Sevigny, one of my favorite modern actresses, possesses a range that is astounding in the myriad of characters she has played in her long career. Debuting to the masses in the critically acclaimed and depressing Boys Don’t Cry (1999) she has churned out a numerous array of independent features portraying one oddball character after another and deserves the strong influence she has achieved over the years.

Director, Craig Macneill makes interesting choices with his film which may or may not please audiences expecting a by the number’s horror offering. He dives into psychological thriller territory with more of a character study approach that provides layers to the finished product. Sevigny is center stage and plenty of camera close-up shots offer an introspective analysis of what her feelings are rather than from her parents’ perspective. Instead of a crazed killer spontaneously committing the crime she is careful and calculating in her plan. Macneill presents Lizzie as the victim and Andrew and Abby the villains.

This is to assume that Borden really committed the crimes, which the film never doubts. Historically, people assume that this is the truth, but Lizzie was set free by a jury refusing to believe a woman of such means would commit such a heinous crime. I wonder if Macneill directed the film with a bit of a smirk at this ridiculous decision of the times when the woman clearly enjoyed the murders. At the end of the film it is explained what happened to Lizzie and Bridget which is a good decision and wraps the film into a nice tidy bow.

Powerful is the quiet subtext which gives a moody and foreboding quality. I adore slow moving films provided the reward is worth the wait and Lizzie sucker punches once the events begin rolling along. Another positive is the gnawing feeling of terrible things about to happen but unsure of when or how the attacks will occur. Most viewers choosing to watch this film will be aware of the context and the reported murders committed.

The atmospheric additions succeed as the late eighteenth century costumes and daily living are believable. The lavish Borden house is well-kept and brightly lit offering a nice New England feel. Finally, the creaks and noises throughout the house perfectly encompass the danger lurking behind corners and the fun is in wondering when Lizzie will strike. Since the film moves back and forth through its time-period we know that strike she will.

Where the film offers its best work is through the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget. Sevigny and Stewart dazzle together with unleashed chemistry nearly rivaling a similar dynamic seen in 2003’s Monster. As with Aline Wuornos and Selby Wall Lizzie is the dominant one and Bridget is submissive following her lead. Both sets of women share a lesbian relationship and neither pair achieves any happiness at the conclusion of the film.

A film sure to fly under the radar and likely to be forgotten before long, Lizzie (2018) is worth the effort. A spooky and controversial interpretation of the events leading up to, during, and after one of the most notorious crimes in United States history is dissected and analyzed from a human perspective. Macneill makes Borden less maniacal and more sympathetic than some may prefer. I think he does a fine job and deserves praise for a rich telling.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer-2017

Director-Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring-Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman

Scott’s Review #774

Reviewed June 15, 2018

Grade: A

For fans of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, creator of such disturbing and bizarre films as 2009’s Dogtooth and 2015’s The Lobster, then The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) will be a treasure. As with those films, the odd story and the peculiar acting styles are prevalent making the film quite the experience. I relish the film and its unusual nature, offering a cinematic experience that is insightful, mesmerizing, extreme, and quite frankly, brilliant.

Steven Murphy (Farrell) is an esteemed cardiac surgeon who “befriends” a troubled teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keogen) whose father had died years earlier as a result of Steven’s negligence. When Martin slowly insinuates himself into Steven’s family life, they begin to fall ill. Martin threatens to kill the entire family unless Steven kills either his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) or one of his two children- the victim can be of his choosing.

The creepy premise is enormously intriguing as the conclusion cannot be foreseen.  A basic yet deep story line is wonderfully spun with many possible directions for the plot to go in. After forty-five minutes or so of the audience wondering why Steven and Martin meet secretly in diners, hospital corridors, or other remote areas, the teen boy’s true motivations come to the surface as he rapidly and calmly puts his cards on the table for Steven.

Surprisingly, none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. One would assume that the Murphy family- wholesome, affluent, and astute, would garner audience support, but we slowly peel back the onion on each character. With a gorgeous house in a quiet Cincinnati neighborhood, Steven and Anna (a doctor herself) are sometimes harsh and physical with their kids, while the kids (Bob and Kim) develop a strange fascination toward Martin. In this way each character is peculiar and has his or her own dire motivations as the plot unfolds.

Lanthimos is quietly becoming one of my favorite new directors as he slowly churns out one disturbing film after the next. Particularly in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, his clear Stanley Kubrick influences bubble to the surface. With plodding then sudden bombastic classical music pieces, the score is crisp with uniqueness, eliciting emotions like surprise and terror from the audience.

From a visual perspective, fans of Kubrick will no doubt notice the long camera shots and slowly panning camera angles. The hospital’s long and foreboding hallways are prominently featured as we follow a character walking along the corridors. This is highly reminiscent of the Overlook hotel sequences in the 1980 Kubrick masterpiece, The Shining.

One particularly jarring nuance to the film is the speech patterns of most of the actors- clearly dictated by Lanthimos and also occurring in 2015’s The Lobster. The character of Steven talks very quickly, but with monotone delivery and in a matter-of-fact style; Kim and Martin also speak this way. I didn’t notice the quality as much with Kidman’s Anna, but Farrell really went to town. I’m not sure this totally works throughout the entire film since the mannerisms give off almost a comical element. To be sure, this uniqueness makes the film more quirky and decidedly non-mainstream, which is to be celebrated.

The climax of the film is brutal. As Steven brandishes a loaded shotgun, the family gathers in their family room, Anna fussing over her new black dress. As the group dons pillow cases, Steven goes Russian roulette style on the family, randomly firing a shot until one member is killed. When the remaining family members see Martin at the diner the next day, they provide him with icy, hateful looks. The entire scene is done without dialog and is tremendously macabre.

Rest assured, I am eagerly awaiting Lanthimos’s next project (reportedly already in the works) and hope against hope he continues to use the superb Colin Farrell, the brilliant Nicole Kidman, and newcomer Barry Keoghan again. Thanks to tremendous acting, a riveting score, and enough thrills and creeps to last a lifetime, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) is at the top of its game.

Killer Joe-2011

Killer Joe-2011

Director-William Friedkin

Starring-Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch

Scott’s Review #450

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Reviewed July 14, 2016

Grade: A-

Killer Joe is a must-see for any fan of director Quentin Tarantino and this small, independent, gem of a feature is definitely worth checking out. The film is obviously influenced by Tarantino films in style, characters, and violence. The violence mixed with humor, wit, and great writing is stamped on the film.

Surprisingly, given the influence of another director, Killer Joe is actually directed by William Friedkin- a very acclaimed filmmaker in his own right- classics such as The Exorcist and The French Connection were created by this talent.

Matthew McConaughey owns Killer Joe and he has thankfully graduated from silly, fluffy, romantic comedies in lieu of smart, delicious roles in independent films of late, and has come to be a respected Hollywood actor. His lengthy nude scene is daring for such an A-list actor.

The film itself is certainly satirical, without being too campy, and the setting of a suffocating, trailer trash, Texas town is extremely well done. Personally, I loved the violent and gruesome fried chicken dinner table scene.

I especially liked the overall food references throughout the film which adds even more macabre comedy to this dark (on the surface) film.

Blue Velvet-1986

Blue Velvet-1986

Director-David Lynch

Starring-Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern

Top 100 Films-#62

Scott’s Review #343

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Reviewed January 9, 2016

Grade: A

Taken from a 1963 Bobby Vinton tune of the same name, Blue Velvet is an independent thriller noir film directed by the master of the weird and the unusual, David Lynch. It is surreal in look and so mysterious- almost a pre-cursor to Lynch’s fantastic television series, Twin Peaks. I adore the film and find new facets to it with each passing viewing. Though it is not an easy or mainstream watch- the pay off can be big and you know you are watching a deep, layered, film.

The story can be tough to completely understand with only one showing, but it goes something like this- Under the guise of a cheerful, suburban surface, evil is lurking somewhere. College student, Jeffrey (MacLachlan) discovers a severed human ear lying in an abandoned lot and delivers it to police detective John Williams and re-connects with the detective’s daughter, Sandy (Dern). Sandy, being privy to secret information about the case, reveals that a mysterious woman, Dorothy Valens (Isabella Rossellini) resides in an apartment key to the case. Jeffrey and Sandy decide to investigate further and get themselves in over their heads as the mystery deepens.

The dreamlike quality to the film is very compelling and intriguing. Layers upon layers come to the forefront as the story unfolds and very few answers are ever provided- this adds to the mystery and is really the point of the film. Many aspects are open to interpretation. The relationship between Jeffrey and the much older Dorothy is fascinating, but what about his chemistry with the innocent Sandy? And who is the Yellow man? When the youngsters see Dorothy perform “Blue Velvet” at her nightclub, it is a great moment in the film.

The character of Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, must be one of the strangest in film history as the man is maniacal and bizarre beyond measure. With his unusual sexual tastes- he enjoys inhaling gas, and sadomasochism, he is a unique character. He is also quite abusive to Dorothy.

The film is a throwback to classic film noir from the 1950’s and a clear femme fatale in Dorothy is central to the film. I find the film so compelling since its subject matter is secrets. Many secrets and dark corruption or various forms of left of center dealings reside in this small North Carolina town- it is the audience’s challenge to put all the pieces of this puzzle together.

Nightcrawler-2014

Nightcrawler-2014

Director-Dan Gilroy

Starring-Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo

Scott’s Review #225

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Reviewed March 1, 2015

Grade: B+

Nightcrawler is best described as an intense crime-thriller set in Los Angeles featuring a wonderful performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as an unstable thief named Lou, who cons and manipulates his way to success videotaping accident scenes and selling them to news stations. The film is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, who could possibly become a household name in the future. Nightcrawler was deservedly awarded the Best Screenplay and the Best First Feature Independent Spirit award honors.

The film is set mainly at night as Lou courses the city in search of accidents, crimes, and violence- the bloodier the better. Later, he is told by Nina Romina, successfully played by Rene Russo that violent crimes in affluent neighborhoods are the best, as they garner the highest ratings. Lou sells his video footage of the crimes to the highest bidder and Nina becomes his main customer. Lou is eventually assisted by Rick Carey, a desperate accomplice in need of money, played by Riz Ahmed. The interesting thing for me about Nightcrawler is its moody setting and dim lighting. It reminds me of the 2004 film Collateral, starring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, also set in Los Angeles. Mostly set at night time and heavily set on the actual streets of L.A., I found this mood excellent and a compelling aspect of the film. It makes Nightcrawler look great.

Gyllenhaal deserves heaps of praise for his role of Lou and is largely responsible for the success of the film- he was co-producer. From an acting standpoint he is excellent and reminiscent of the frightening performance that Robert DeNiro gave in Taxi Driver. With an angular face and eyes that seemingly never blink, the character is intense and driven on every level- he is a sociopath. When he quietly threatens Nina and Rick on separate occasions one can tell he means business. Why Lou has become a thief desperate for money is never explained- does he have a family? Is he a convict? He seems highly educated, but is he? How did he land in this predicament and resorts to the life that he does? As Lou becomes more manipulative and resorts to adjusting crime scenes to make them all the more shocking, he seems to teeter over the edge of sanity. In one scene he sneaks into a victim’s home and videotapes photos of the victims from their refrigerator to promote an empathetic angle and therefore making more money from them. This is a brilliant performance by Gyllenhaal.

Another fascinating performance I admired is that of Rene Russo- absent from films for what seems like years, Nightcrawler is a nice return for her. Her character also has little backstory. We know that she is a driven news woman who has trouble maintaining success at individual news stations and moves around a lot. Nina is a cut-throat news director eager for violent stories and determined to keep her existing job. She also becomes begrudgingly fascinated and enamored with Lou. Does she like bad boys or does she admire his talent?

The third major character is Riz Ahmed’s Rick. Rick comes across as a sweet, yet gullible guy strapped for cash. Like Lou, we do not know why he is broke, but it is hinted at that he may do or have done some male prostitution- he is desperate. As the film goes along the character develops a tough skin and inquisitiveness takes over- he is attracted to this new lifestyle and excitement, but will not be bullied by Lou.

On a social level, the film presents an interesting, albeit disturbing take on the relationship between the media and the viewers. What will news channels do for a good story? How bloodthirsty are news audiences? How often is a positive news story presented? It makes the audience reflect and ponder.

Nightcrawler is a dark thriller, independently made, which deservedly garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and a slew of Independent Spirit awards. Intense, rich, visually appealing, it is one of the success stories of 2014 cinema.

The Guest-2014

The Guest-2014

Director-Adam Wingard

Starring-Dan Stevens

Scott’s Review #220

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Reviewed February 7, 2015

Grade: C-

The Guest is a thriller from 2014 that can, perhaps, be classified under the old adage “it’s so bad that it’s good”, though as I ponder writing this review, that could be a bit of a stretch. As poor as the film is, there is something that I slightly enjoyed about it. The premise is simple- a Midwestern family- the Peterson’s, is suddenly visited by a veteran soldier, named David, who claims to be a friend of the parent’s deceased son Caleb. David easily insinuates himself into their lives and the Peterson’s extend an invitation for him to stay a few days to rehash details about Caleb. The family is a middle-class one, yet struggling financially, and consisting of a mother and father, a college-aged daughter named Anna- the actress eerily resembling a young Gwen Stefani, and a bullied, timid, high school aged son named Luke. From the get go, something is clearly off with David, but his motives are unclear to the audience.

The issues with the film are aplenty. For starters, the acting is rather poor. The most notable actors in the film are Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) and Sheila Kelley (L.A. Law) and a collection of unknowns. Stevens and Kelley give the better performances, and I particularly thought Stevens very believable in a role opposite of his Downton Abbey alter ego, but the rest of the cast is wooden and un-compelling. The weakest parts of The Guest, though, are the inane plot points and the 1980’s style soundtrack- were the film makers going for a retro throwback? The film is set in present times so this aspect remains a mystery. To be fair, the story does start off as interesting- I wondered, Is it a Fatal Attraction type film? What is David’s motive? What was his relationship with the deceased Caleb? Does he intend to help or harm the family? The reveal towards the end of the film is as much implausible as it is ridiculous and an enormous disappointment. Without giving too much away, the government plays a large role in the meat of the film and it does little to provoke sympathy for any of the characters, but rather, only elicits further confusion.

The attempted (and botched) love story between David and Anna does not really work. They have little chemistry and the rooting value is not there especially as he picks up her drunken best friend at a party. Is the audience supposed to root for David and Anna or is it merely a weak sub-plot to the thrill aspect of the film? I suspect the latter.

Despite all of these negatives I did not find myself despising the film as it trucked along- rather, I found the film to be more of a muddled mess than anything else. It is not a good film, but there is something slightly appealing about it. Some of the death scenes are well done and the budding friendship between David and the bullied son is rather sweet. The son is enamored with the strong, masculine David and David, in turn, serves as protector of the boy, humiliating the bullies who gave the kid a black eye. The film does not delve into a sexual angle regarding this, but rather it is a bond that is nice to see in film. It has a nice, warm element.

Another impressive point to The Guest is that it ends with a surprise that leaves room for a sequel. However, due to the success that the film did not achieve, I doubt a sequel will ever see the light of day.

A poorly written, weak acted film, The Guest has moments of interest, but fails miserably at providing a strong film viewing experience. By the end of the film I still had no idea of the main characters motivations and that is a huge problem. Confusing and convoluted are adjectives best to describe this film.