Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Michael Jackson must be so disappointed
Because the thriller is dead.
Don't believe me? Well, when's the last time you remember getting really excited for an upcoming thriller? Don't hurt your brain.
The (at least temporary) death of one of cinema's most venerable genres first occurred to me over the weekend, as I was staring absently at a billboard for The International. I'd seen a trailer, and been unimpressed by it, several months earlier. Seems like another latter day paranoia movie about righteous people getting targeted by the corporate machine. Yawn.
This movie should theoretically have a lot to offer me, if not in terms of genre, then in terms of ingredients. Clive Owen may currently hold the honor of my biggest man-crush in Hollywood, and as for your run-of-the-mill heterosexual crushes, Naomi Watts ain't bad either. But perhaps most importantly, I love the director, Tom Tykwer. Despite having a couple duds on his résumé -- if you haven't seen Heaven, don't -- this man is truly an outside-the-box thinker, who brought his highly original perspectives to Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. In fact, I own both films. If he can breathe exciting new vitality into a costume drama about conjuring fragrances, why can't he save the thriller?
Yet I have no interest whatsoever in seeing The International.
Maybe I'm gun shy from all the dreck that has littered the thriller landscape these last couple years. You know, the Firewalls, the AntiTrusts, the Disturbias. It's titles like these that leave me thinking the thriller is as dead as the horror was, before Scream came along.
Still don't believe me? Well, to further illustrate my point, I've taken a gander at my handy-dandy list of 2008 movies -- not the ones I saw, but the complete list, according to their U.S. release dates. Of the over 200 movies on this list, there were only nine -- that's right, nine -- I could feel fairly certain of classifying as straight-up thrillers. (I consider The Bank Job more of a heist movie, and the political thriller is a different enough genre to take Body of Lies out of contention). Granted, I don't recognize all the titles at a glance, but even if I've missed some, that still leaves the genre pretty darn scarce. And if there are thrillers on that list whose titles I don't recognize, that makes them fringe -- the kissing cousin of "scarce."
Shall we take a look at some of these films and how they fared?
88 Minutes. I saw this on a number of worst films of the year lists, as all of Al Pacino's shark-jumping tendencies really crystallized into a movie people could stand up and boo. I did not see this film, but am content to take its detractors at their word. U.S. box office: $17 million.
Bangkok Dangerous. Does a Nicolas Cage movie really count as a thriller, or is it its own idiotic genre? I should probably call this straight-up action, more like Max Payne or The Punisher: War Zone, neither of which I'm counting here. This film was a laughingstock, released on the first eligible date after Labor Day. You either count it as a failed thriller, which supports my theory, or don't count it as a thriller at all, which also supports my theory. I win either way. Clever, eh? U.S. box office: $15 million.
Cassandra's Dream. Woody Allen's Match Point was pretty definitely a thriller, and this was filmed on the same loooong trip to England as that film and Scoop, so let's classify it as a thriller. This film has less nuance than any Woody Allen film I've ever seen, with bluntly expository dialogue and almost a total lack of action. Boo-ring. Even Ewen McGregor and Colin Farrell can't liven it up, and U.S. audiences noticed in a major way. U.S. box office: $971,000.
Eagle Eye. This definitely qualifies as the most successful thriller of 2008, having crossed the $100 million mark in the U.S. How much of that can be credited to the filmgoing public's love affair with Shia LaBeouf is uncertain. Because you didn't hear critics saying much good about it, did you? The thing I thought was funniest about this film was that its poster contains no fewer than three anguished expressions apiece for its two stars -- anguished expressions on the poster being the dead giveaway that a movie's a thriller. I've included the poster here for your reference. U.S. box office: $101 million.
Lakeview Terrace. Supposedly laughable domestic thriller in which Samuel L. Jackson does everything but yell "I'm the police! King Kong ain't got nothing on me!" Interracial couples beware. This film was seriously derided by critics, but a couple people did see it. U.S. box office: $39 million.
Passengers. I would not be surprised if this Anne Hathaway starrer were really good, because Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) is a really good director. However, this film was so under the radar that IMDB does not even show a U.S. box office take for it, after an October 24th limited release. U.S. box office: ???
Tell No One. This is the thriller I wanted to see in 2008. A French film with some supposedly excellent twists. Yet I was never aware of it playing at any theaters near me. Though it did quite well in France, its U.S. results were much more modest. U.S. box office: $6 million.
Untraceable. Yet another "serial killer taunts FBI agent" movie, starring Diane Lane. It did okay at the box office, but that would seem to depend more on having little competition when it was released last January. No one said anything good about it. U.S. box office: $29 million.
Vantage Point. A decent cast boosted this "differing perspectives" thriller to a pretty good box office. But again, no one I respect had a nice thing to say about this movie. And it's yet another film on this list that I did not see. If you're counting, the only one I did see was Cassandra's Dream. And I try to see a good cross section of what's out there, if I have half a mind to. U.S. box office: $72 million.
Proof? Hardly. Signs of a trend? Hell yeah.
And it doesn't seem likely that this trend will reverse itself anytime soon. I'm not expecting some 21st century Hitchcock to come out of the woodwork. But then again, who would have thought one terrifying phone call to Drew Barrymore -- which has now become a parody mainstay -- would revive the whole horror genre?
As for The International ... well, if I have to give someone the benefit of the doubt, maybe it should be Tom Tykwer.
Or maybe I'll just wait to see what my fellow critics have to say about it first ...