Sunday, February 12, 2017
"Nosedive" is the name of my favorite Black Mirror episode, which I saw for the first time only a few weeks ago.
It's also the best word to describe the plummeting quality of a movie I just saw.
Sleepless Night, the 2011 French thriller from Frederic Jardin, has just been remade as a Jamie Foxx vehicle called Sleepless, which is why iTunes presented it as the 99 cent rental a few weeks back. I don't have all that much interest in the Foxx version, but the original had been on my radar because a friend considered it among the best films he saw the year it came out (I guess that would have been 2012 in the U.S.). I jumped at the bargain rental opportunity.
And as I was watching this movie in its first half-hour last night, I caught myself drifting from the plot for a moment to have one of those internal debates I almost always have while watching a movie these days: where its star rating currently stands. What I had gotten so far was traditional four-star quality, but I asked myself if it weren't a little better than that, maybe deserving of a 4.5. Then I talked myself back into the four with the reminder of how I've got to forcibly push my star ratings downward a bit as I'm giving out too many ratings of at least four stars these days. I even got distracted enough to contemplate the loss of a 3.5 as a perfectly respectable rating to give a movie. I need to empower that 3.5 again, I thought.
By the end of the movie, this discussion was all academic. By the end of the movie, Sleepless Night had dropped all the way down to a 1.5.
I tend to notice when movies lose or gain a star rating as a result of something that happens. But there were no gains to be had here. I remember when I settled on the 3.5, and then also the moment when I decided it may be no better than three. And then things just devolved from there.
What were some of the things wrong with this movie, that may have always been present but revealed themselves as ever greater problems as it went along?
Well, let's give you that big SPOILER warning before continuing.
1) Probably because the movie is French, it's fairly unafraid to give us an unlikable protagonist. The guy whose face you see being pushed above is an undercover cop -- well, he's undercover as a cop, but he's pretending to be a dirty cop so he can bust an actual dirty cop. The problem is, we don't actually know he's undercover for at least the first hour; in other words, long after we already are supposed to have developed sympathies for him. And we do, because his teenage son has been kidnapped as retaliation for a theft of the mob's cocaine and leverage to get said cocaine back. But the problem is, we see him do so many questionable/violent things, never crossing lines but always getting very close to them, that our sympathies are complicated from the get-go, and the reveal that he's undercover doesn't do much to mitigate that. In fact, because it's French and is not forced to be conventional, I almost wished they'd just left him as a dirty cop.
2) His treatment -- actually, the whole movie's treatment -- of women is kind of appalling. There's a female cop on his trail, who actually finds his stash of cocaine -- which he's hidden in order to see proof of his son being alive before handing it over -- and moves it to another location in order to give it to her bosses (also corrupt, though she doesn't know it). So we are introduced to her in this weirdly shady context in which we think she might be corrupt as well, though it turns out she's only incompetent. Almost all the things she does in the movie end up being stupid in some way, including several major blunders near the end. But the worst scene involving her character is one in which our hero roughs her up in a store room in trying to get his cocaine back. There's no actual hitting with open or closed fists, but there's a lot of slamming against shelves stocked with canned goods, pushing of photos into faces, and wrenching of arms behind backs with the intent to break them. Not only does this weaken our sympathies for him, but she doesn't come across particularly well here either. Although she does not give up the information until she's already endured quite a bit of this, her partner later finds her recovering from the incident, huddled and eating soup (or some equivalent victim behavior). And then she mentions he trapped her in a freezer full of meat -- and she's a vegetarian. That's the worst thing that has happened to you? Three or four other female characters appear for a short time and are discarded in narratively unsatisfying ways, including a woman "our hero" saves from a thug who was behaving brutishly toward her, and who then follows him around like a puppy dog with stars in her eyes, trying to kiss him. Ugh.
3) The film is called Sleepless Night -- actually "White Night" (Nuit Blanche) in French -- but it does almost nothing to show the passage of time or make note of there being anything particularly interesting related to the fact that he spends a whole night trying to get his son back. The whole movie takes place inside one sprawling nightclub, only rarely going outdoors for a minute or two, while always immediately returning to its prime location. There are so many reversals of power and so many times when a particular failed tactic should have cost him his son's life (spoiler: they don't, and the son never really feels in danger) that it all becomes kind of a blur. Now they're here again. Now they're there again. Now this person sees that person from across a crowded club. Now they're all on the move again. At the very end you finally see them out in broad daylight and only then do you realize that it took all night. The thing that tends to diminish that idea is that the club stays packed with patrons, kitchen staff, and all other signs of being in a permanent state of 10 p.m. primetime that the passage of time is deemphasized further. Shouldn't the dynamic undergo some kind of evolution over the course of the evening, with a lesser density of fellow human beings somehow playing into the strategies employed by both sides? This movie does not think so.
4) There are more "why did this person do this at this time?" moments in this film than I can possibly count. But if you've read to this point, you've probably seen it and maybe you can remember some of them on your own. Or, you'll simply remember that this is what you thought, too, as you were watching it. In #4 I'll also throw in the characters who are introduced, then not checked in on for large quantities of time, then discarded unceremoniously upon their return, without seeming to factor into the narrative trajectory in a way that justified their inclusion in the story in the first place.
5) The oddest thing about Sleepless Night is how it ends. As "our hero" has finally delivered his son back home, he passes out in his car as the result of his injuries. His son sees this and runs back downstairs to take him to the hospital. The only potentially fatal injury I could remember, though, was the reopening of a stab wound he had acquired in the initial theft of the drugs, a separate incident that starts the film. Had he gotten shot since then? Stabbed again? Poisoned? Drowned? I could remember none of these. So the reopened stab wound is suddenly being considered a life-threatening condition. Son gets him to the hospital, hospital staff put him on a gurney and rush him off, son has frightened look on his face, and ... credits roll. That's it. We never find out what happens to the man. There are plenty of ways to end a movie without telling us what happens to a character, and many of them are sublime. This one felt like the movie ending in the middle of a sentence. What's useful about ending on the boy looking panicked over the uncertain health of his father? Nothing I can think of. What catharsis is gained by us? None I can think of.
So I entered Sleepless Night not caring about the American remake, and I came out wondering if maybe they took a good concept and turned it into something worthwhile. "You can see why it was remade," said my wife, who was similarly disappointed by the film's complete nosedive.
Sleepless will doubtless sanitize many of the elements that made the French version edgier and could have made it a modern classic. But it will also likely obey more of the basic tenets of good filmmaking, which in this case seems like it will be a good thing.