As the lockdown grinds on, how about taking a look at these widely available, relatively low-budget and overlooked thrillers, all featuring twists in the lead characters story arc – played by actors who normally essay more ‘vanilla’-type roles. They’re all pretty watchable and generally don’t tend to overstay their welcome, ideal post 10.30pm fodder.
Here we go then, in order of release:
Director Rian Johnson (Looper/Last Jedi/Knives Out) went onto bigger, but not necessarily better things after Brick, his 2005 debut picture. The film has shades of Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and The Black Marble (Harold Becker, 1980), with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an amateur shamus investigating murder, heroin and organised crime operating in the environs of his California suburban high school.
Levitt plays the role as if Holden Caulfield had washed up in the present-day US West Coast, still holding true to his set of values and an irritating habit of speaking his mind. Special mention should go to Lukas Haas (the kid in 1985’s Witness) as local drug baron ‘The Pin’, playing a thoroughly nasty piece of work, a particular contrast to many of his previous roles.
The Lookout (2007)
Another Joseph Gordon-Levitt picture, this critically lauded heist movie features the actor as a former sports Jock who suffered brain damage in a reckless car accident and now works as a janitor in a small-town USA bank.The twist? His character Chris Pratt (no relation) is seduced by the improbably named Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher) into helping a crew of inept criminals rob the bank.
The gang are headed by none other than plummy Brit thesp Matthew Goode (Downton/The Crown/Wine Show), who to his credit, is rather good (sic) as the gang’s domineering leader Gary Spargo – a former schoolmate of Pratt. As well as the aforementioned trio, a great cast includes Jeff Daniels as Pratt’s kindly blind friend Lewis, Carla Gugino and Bruce McGill.
Mr Brooks (2007)
Pssst…wanna see Kevin Costner play a serial killer? then Mr Brooks (2007) is the film for you (and also if you’d like to see comedian Dane Cook’s throat cut with a shovel).
2007’s Mr Brooks was a career-swerve for Kevin Costner, with the movie a 180 from his usual good-guy roles. Although in Costner’s superb Open Range (2003) his character Charley Waite wrestled with a violent dark side, this is one of the few times we’ve seen Costner play a character that should (in theory) be thoroughly unlikeable, although of course he does soften the edges so the viewer ends up rooting for him.
Mr Brooks is a conflicted soul, with his mischievous id Marshall (William Hurt) egging him on to commit further murders whilst he struggles to combat his addiction and maintain his position as husband, father and wealthy pillar of the Palo Alto community. Brooks also has to deal with the fear that this daughter may well be also following in his footsteps, the intrusion of the weaselly blackmailer Baffert (Dane Cook) into his life and a persistent (but side-tracked by an extraneous plotline) detective played by Demi Moore.
By no means a perfect flick, but one with some strong scenes, especially the banter between Costner and his alter ego Hurt, and when Dane Cook gets his well-deserved comeuppance.
Deception (2008, originally THE LIST)
Is Ewan McGregor’s erotic thriller a crap-fest or not as bad as it was painted by critics? McGregor can be a rather lazy actor, on occasion capable of a strong performance (e.g. The Ghost, Haywire), but more often than not content to phone it in, his roles mainly distinguished by a succession of over- styled hairdos and/or facial furniture.
Bearing that in mind, I fully expected to regard his 2008 erotic-thriller Deception as another ‘meh’ experience. Originally called the slightly less generic The List, Deception was blighted by the straight-to-video title and the uncertain appetite of the cinema-going public for more of McGregor’s ‘size-driven’ penchant for onscreen nudity (The Pillow Book etc).
But…it’s actually not that bad. Not great mind you, but it passes the time well enough, especially if you zone out some of the dopier plot twists. Without revealing the intricacies of the storyline; McGregor stars as nebbish accountant Jonathan McQuarry, who suffers from what must be the all-time chronic case of blue balls, and as consequence finds himself caught up in the sex club schemes of lawyer Wyatt Bose, played by Hugh Jackman.
Michelle Williams stars as the mysterious ‘S’ whilst Maggie Q, Charlotte Rampling and Natasha (Species) Henstridge feature as the other women McGregor encounters through the nookie operation. McGregor is in sad-sack mode for much of the picture, whilst Jackman (who also produced) gives a cheesy spin to the role of Bose.
The American (2010)
This unfairly overlooked assassin-in-hiding thriller featured a buttoned-down performance from George Clooney, a far cry from his gormless mugging in the Coen Brothers movies. Clooney flees to the incredibly scenic Abruzzo region of Italy, where he tries to lay low, talking to the resident priest and frequenting the local brothel.
I won’t be spoiling the movie to say that Clooney’s idyll doesn’t last that long. Directed by Anton Corbijin (Control, A Most Wanted Man) and photographed by Martin Ruhe (Harry Brown), the picture proceeds at its own pace and looks superb. A very European movie, with more than a touch of Jean Pierre Melville (Le Samourai/Le Cercle Rouge). So no Hollywood chums turning up for a quick cameo, although of Clooney’s co-stars you may recognise Thekla Rueten from In Bruges (2008) and Red Sparrow (2018).
Definitely a film to come back to, preferably in the Autumn or Winter months, when you can almost smell the pine trees and see your frozen breath in the air.
No one Lives (2012)
Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train) directs Luke Evans (Beauty & The Beast, Dracula Unbound) as the kind of chap (called simply ‘Driver’) even the most depraved criminals would be best advised to cross the street to avoid rather than meet. As you’ll see when you watch the picture.
Evans has obviously played bad guys before (Furious 7, Message From The King), but his career trajectory is now firmly geared to leading man status so this may throw you a curve.
Pitch black humour, a thoroughly dislikeable group of adversaries well deserving of Driver’s attentions and a knowing performance from Evans all lead to a satisfying genre flick.The cast includes a few recognisable faces such as Lee Tergesen (Watchmen/Daredevil) and one Brodus Clay, a professional wrestler turned Fox News commentator. Which kinda figures.
The Guest (2014)
Such a nice boy in Downton Abbey, Dan Stevens flexes his acting chops in this very dark, but pretty funny movie, starring as David Collins, the supposed army buddy of a family’s died-in-combat son.
Stevens gets his teeth stuck into the role and is really very good – nicely blending charm, big brother protectiveness and the propensity for extreme violence. Collins appears to be trying to help the family out from their economic and psychological woes – but his method – immoderate physical force is questionable. To put it mildly.
The Gift (2015)
Something a tad deeper, with Joel Edgerton (in his excellent movie directing debut) playing a creepy ex-school classmate of supposedly straight arrow Jason Bateman who returns to mix things up.
I think you can guess that things aren’t quite what they seem. An effective little thriller and one that lets Bateman play against his usually bland onscreen persona – so effectively that it can make the viewer watch some of his other performances (Game Night, Hancock, Couples Retreat etc) through the lens of this role.
War on Everyone (2016)
After the critical success of director John Michael McDonagh’s previous two pictures – The Guard (2011) and Calvary (2014), there were high expectations for 2016’s black comedy War On Everyone. Reviews were mixed, but I’ve come to appreciate the picture’s unique charms on repeated viewing.
Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña star as corrupt Albuquerque detectives Monroe and Bolaño, who breeze through life ripping off criminals and boozing – until they face nemesis in the shape of the boring guy from the Divergent movies (Theo James, very good in this though) as a crooked English aristocrat and his repellent sidekick Caleb Landry Jones, whose face in the movie is just begging for a punch. Much like in 2017’s Get Out.
Without spoiling the plot, it turns out Skarsgård and Peña aren’t quite as irredeemable as we first think.A strong cast is rounded out by the ever-watchable Paul Reiser and then rising star Tessa Thompson.
There must be a dark streak within the McDonagh family as John Michael McDonagh’s younger brother Martin is also a playwright/director and of course responsible for the great movie trifecta of In Bruges (2008), Seven Psychopaths (2012) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)
This brutal prison thriller made next to no money on its release but has since swiftly achieved cult status – and with good reason. Despite a title which presupposes a rather lightweight fracas/shoving match and the presence of faded comedy star Vince Vaughn (The Internship/Fred Claus) in the lead role of oddly principled drug mule Bradley Thomas, Brawl pulls no punches (sic).
Once incarcerated in the unbelievably foul Redleaf prison, Vaughn rains holy hell on the inmates who put him there, head-stomping and smashing anything that gets in his way. Vaughn is a revelation in the movie, a slow-moving Golem, dishing out righteous fury against his persecutors. The cast also includes a very creepy Udo Keir as ‘The Placid Man’ and Don Johnson as the sadistic Warden Tuggs, another very well-played role on the actor’s comeback trail.