Friday, February 26, 2010

Is this Hell? No - it's Iowa

Film Review - THE CRAZIES (2010)

Screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright
Inspired by a 1973 screenplay by George A. Romero
Directed by Breck Eisner

Since I'm thoroughly convinced that many of those on the Coasts believe that we Heartlanders are a few sandwiches shy of a picnic on a normal day, small wonder that the fictional hamlet of Ogden Marsh, Iowa provides the setting for this reworking of George A. Romero's 1973 button-pusher, The Crazies. According to author and historian Andreas Killen, that was the year of our "National Nervous Breakdown," as Americans contemplated whether their president was non compos mentis enough to suspend the Constitution, declare martial law and stave off the grinding machineries of impeachment. Into this charged atmosphere, Romero contributed his version of a Saturday Night Massacre; the victims of a biological weapon were piling up in a small town in Pennsylvania, but when the poster for the movie asked, "Why Are the Good People Dying?," it might just as well have referred to the Kent State-like casualties at the weapons of the US Military, as opposed to any insanity-inducing microorganism.

Our 21st Century chromium plated intellect has given us an army with a lot more toys with greater firepower, and more reliance upon omniscient eyes in the sky than boots on the ground. Breck Eisner's zippy version of Romero's cautionary tale starts us off fearing the plague that turns friends into fiends, but then swiftly shifts to the panic that ensues when the full military might of the Red, White & Blue comes down on a population of a mere thousand and change, and comes down hard.

We open on Ogden Marsh's main street in flames, and before cinema latecomers have time to fit their 44 oz. cups into the armchair holders, we flash back two days earlier, to the sunniness of early April and high school baseball on the field. Immediately our mental chronometer kicks in; we're gonna have to go a long way to get to Chaos in a mere 48 hours. The initial incidents are isolated, infrequent, as a stupefied man and former town drunk shows up at that ballgame, toting a loaded shotgun, and needs to be dispatched by Pierce County Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant), the kind of lawman who doesn't have to discharge his firearm with regularity in a town billed as "The Friendliest Place on Earth." It's another 24 hours before a second case crops up, an unnerving sequence in which a milquetoast husband and father sheds both responsibilities in a fiery act. If you're in Iowa, there's nothing halfway about the crazy way they'll treat you.

Remember that mental chronometer? Well, we've reached this point within the first twenty minutes or so, and if you've been paying attention, you know that things are headed south very quickly. The military swoops in (in one effective scene, literally), a confused citizenry are rounded up, families are separated (Olyphant has my favorite line of dialogue, to a friend and fellow husband who's willing to be herded with little concern for his wife's well-being), and the infected are segregated from the rest, a fever being the apparent telltale symptom. But Dutton's wife Judy (a tough and resourceful Radha Mitchell) is pregnant...and with an elevated temp. Uh oh. And it only takes one pick-up truck against an improvised barricade for the best-laid plans of Uncle Sam to go the way of all rodents.

I appreciated the fact that The Crazies never loses touch with its B-Movie roots, and though there's the level of budget at disposal here that Romero can only salivate over today, there's still a sense of cost-effective storytelling. Eisner doesn't try to paint a panoramic canvas here; he keeps close to the point of view of the Duttons, and there's no attempt to balance it with the military's calculations. To the scurrying multitudes, those remain largely inscrutable. There's an audience laugh when Olyphant offers the prosaic "We're in big trouble here," but we choke on it when we subsequently realize how easy it is to isolate a town that has only one road in and one road out. Eisner is also a skilled enough director to wring a lot of tension out of his set pieces, including memorable sequences in a funeral parlor basement (autopsy saws = nothing good), an upstairs nursery, and the film's high point, a dizzying confrontation in the otherwise mundane confines of a car wash.

Olyphant has had a troublesome career; he's often tagged with the borderline psycho label, or called upon to play jerks, but he finds his inner Eastwood here, a man of few words whose thumbs just naturally slip into the loops of his belt. (There are flinty lines he delivers that, if you close your eyes, it really is 1973 again, and you're ready to call him up to request "Misty.") From what I've seen of his new series Justified, and from the strong work he did on Deadwood, it's a shame that we no longer have that one genre anymore for him to play in -- you remember, the one with dust and horses? Six years ago Aussie Radha Mitchell looked poised to become the next Naomi Watts (Woody Allen got such a strong performance out of her in the otherwise negligible Melinda and Melinda), and while she's been gracing a number of genre offerings (Rogue, Surrogates, Silent Hill), it's long past time she was handed an A-Level script.

So, yes, The Crazies is a B-Movie, unapologetically so, and demonstrably better than it has to be. It's characters are lightweight - all the easier to blow away - but they're dealing with the epitome of a Very Bad Day, and they need to find egress, not moments of emotional bonding. And it's a B-Movie that's not without sly commentary. In addition to the evils of the Military-Industrial complex, there's also an implied reference to our gun-loving culture, and a suggestion that those who are used to firearms - and channeling that internal angst into trigger-finger action - may be slightly better at, uh, integrating their loony rage and surviving, once they go insane in the membrane. And when the center no longer holds, and the microcosm that is Ogden Marsh is blinded by violence, it's the one-eyed who can squint down the barrel of a shotgun who will be King.


Anonymous said...

Excellent review Senski. I personally thought that the character development was better than the original. But you thought the characters were a little on the light side? I think the deputy to a certain extent but the rest I could definitely empathize with.

And the cruel nature of the military (Mitchell on the gurney, 'No please I'm, pregnant') made for a more chilling affair.

senski said...

I say "lightweight," PoT, only in the sense that they don't really sit around and talk about their pasts. They're dealing with the problem at hand, and oh yes, their reactions feel real. And the Duttons feel like real midwesterners to me, strong and not-overly emotionally demonstrative. (It makes that kiss in the convenience store so damn effective!) The script - and the situation - is always forcing them to deal with the matter at hand.

"No please - I'm pregnant!" Mitchell really is a superb actress, no? She went deep for that emotional beat.

Come to think of it, I think the deputy was pretty well-developed, or at least that's what I was projecting on him. I know of so many guys - failures in high school - who go into law enforcement, when they should be taking time to deal with rage issues. When you deal with it all your life, what's a virus to you but one more explosion - albeit a long, slow one - to contain?

I'm reading reviews now of people who say they like the movie less the more they think about it - I'm finding I like it *more."

Glad you like the review, PoT - you are always in my target audience!

Anonymous said...

Gotcha, that make sense. And I see your point on the deputy. I also know of several types of the same peeps that should look into getting help but instead, get into some structured sort of profession (law enforcement, military, etc.). Great point that I never thought of.

The more I think about it, the more I like it too.

R.D. Penning said...

I just want to say, I am from Iowa, and it is Hell- haha. Nice review, can't wait to see it tomorrow

senski said...

Thanks, R.D. - and welcome to The Jar!

Jeff Allard said...

I thought this was one of the best horror films in some time, just in the sense of being a straight-up genre film and hitting all the right notes. And I thought the characterizations worked just fine. I liked that it wasn't over-written with a lot of speechifying and backstories. Everything was very plain-spoken but yet there were some nice nuances to the performances. Just an all-around cool movie, in my book.

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