Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Strangers

Following a close friend's wedding reception, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) make their way back to James' family's summer home where they are staying for the course of the wedding. Things are a little tense between the couple, because of an earlier disagreement, and they each need a little quiet time to absorb the past few hours and come to terms with what they feel the future holds for them, mutually and individually. Fortunately, the summer home is in an extremely secluded area unburdened by the distractions of modern civilization. However, In the wee hours of the morning, James and Kristen are paid a visit by three masked strangers (hence the name) who seemingly have no intent other than malice. Unfortunately, the summer home is in an extremely secluded area unburdened by the distractions of modern civilization. Isolated from any possible assistance, their fear meters pegged, what started out as an emotional late night of contemplation suddenly disintegrates into a surreal exercise in survival.

Honestly, I'm still kinda working this one out. In my opinion, a small percentage of the film is truly original while another small percentage is truly predictable or insulting, leaving the majority to do the best it can with typical suspense situations. What I've been trying to work out is whether or not this was a successful combination and, after much deliberation, I've decided that the movie succeeds, but only moderately. With that decided, I can say the final product falls somewhere between fair and good, however, there are a few standout qualities.

The two things that save this flick from a being a direct-to-video release or, at worse, a bad genre network made-for-televison movie, is the cast and the cinematography. Basically, the cast consists of five people, our poor tormented couple and the three masked strangers, with 99.9% of the dialog being delivered by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. Tyler is excellent in realistically protraying the gamut of emotion experienced by Kristin while Speedman is more than adequate but slightly stifled because of the nature of the James character. The fact that the three strangers have only five or six cumulative lines of dialog (one stranger has none) contributes to the overall intensity, insanity and isolation of the situation, leaving Tyler and Speedman to be the sole conduits of emotion and information, which they do surprisingly well, keeping in mind that many actors would have a procilivty to grossly over-act given similar opportunities. Meshing cohesively with the performances, as well as practically creating the stark isolated environment, is the seemingly simple and minimalistic use of lighting, especially that of the interior shots. What initially starts out as a warm, almost romantic, quality in the house, eventually becomes a character in it's own right as the tones and situations in the movie progress and change. I kept remembering how, as a child, the simple act of turning on an overhead light could banish the dark, the shadows (even sounds) and my fears in one quick motion. Not so here. Even with all the lights on and a fire in the fireplace, the interior scenes were never remotely bright and shadows were always prevalent making the darkness seem like a living thing trying to squeeze the life from the light. The muted lighting and use of grain in the film was very reminiscent of some of the great suspense/horror film from the '70's including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978), even though in the '70's, that was simply how films were made because of the available technology, whereas in film making today, those types of things are actually conscious decisions. It's easy for me to say that my favorite aspect of the movie was how it looked.

Unfortunately, Tyler and, to a lesser degree, Speedman's acting along with the excellent cinematography still weren't enough to completely win me over. As I said earlier, for me, this was only a fair to good movie and the main reason for that is the conflict I felt with the story and the James Hoyt character. I'll not go into detail because what bothers me may not bother someone else. I've mentioned on several occasions the fact that I'm aware that different people react differently in intense situations and, for the most part, it's impossible to predict how an individual will respond to every scenario, however, it's my opinion that certain reactions are merely a question of instinct, meaning that in many cases, the best action is no action, and the average person would act accordingly. Keep in mind that I'm not confusing instinct with intelligence because, as most of us who use polysyllabic words know, if it were a matter of intelligence, the average person would be (and usually is) toast in these suspense/horror type situations. I guess what I'm trying to say is that in movies like this, I'd like to see more experimental creativity with character development rather than dependence on tweaked cliches.

Oh, and while I would never try to indicate that I know exactly how I would respond were I to find myself in the same situation as Kristen and James, I can guarantee that when I get the shotgun in my hands, along with a shoe box full of shells, the game is unequivocally over.

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