Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: Alphabet Killer

I went with RK to see the new movie The Alphabet Killer. During this time of year when all the major contenders for Golden Globes and Oscars are released, it's unusual to have a movie such as this one with few major actors and a low-key presence come out at the same time. Inevitably, a movie such as this gets lost in the shuffle of blockbusters. Case in point: we saw the movie at a small theater near NYU that usually shows foreign films and art-house films. This thriller is supposedly based on a true story about a series of murders that took place around Rochester, NY in the early 1970s. You can read a bit about the history of the case on Wikipedia. In fact, it's more inspired by the murders and not based on them at all. The premise is that a detective, Megan Paige, is working on the rape and murder of a girl, and becomes so obsessed with the case that she suffers a nervous breakdown that leads to a diagnosis of mental disease. Two years later, in recovery, another attack takes place and she manages to get herself reassigned to the team working to solve the murders. As RK pointed out, every good police thriller has the lead detective suffering from some problem, usually alcoholism or another addiction. Here, it's mental disease. The film is formulaic murder-mystery-thriller, but this film tries to take it to the next level by adding supernatural elements and social commentary on the idea of mental illness. At some moments, it works; other times, it's a bit overwrought. Eliza Dushku plays the detective Megan, and she's quite good. (Among past roles, she played the vampire slayer Faith on Angel.) She has an exotic look to her that makes her stand out in the all-male police squadron. She is in just about every scene, so you follow her through her ups and downs to the point of almost living it with her. In fact, I think that is one of the strengths of this film. As I watched it, I felt very uncomfortable, emotionally and physically. Because of the subject matter, you cannot help but feel disturbed by how it's played out on the screen, but what I discovered was that the way it was filmed was adding to my physical stress. Almost every shot was filmed at some skewed angle, so that it alters your perception of reality. We're used to well-framed scenes in films, but when you have handheld cameras that shake, voyeuristic views of the characters, off-balance perspectives, 360-degree panoramas that make you dizzy, and filters that create a hazy effect, it actually throws you off. I think that's the point. Part of this movie's intent is for you to feel Megan's mental illness along with her, to experience her hallucinations and her shakes. As a result, your own perception of reality gets thrown off. It works, to some extent. After a while, though, it just started to get annoying. In any case, all of the acting is strong (Timothy Hutton, Cary Elwes, and so on), and the writing by Tom Malloy (who also plays one of the officers) is well-structured. As far as mysteries go, it keeps you going, which is always a good thing. Should you rush out to seem this film in the theater? Only if you've seen the blockbusters and potential award winners, you have a crush on the main actress, you're a thriller-buff, or you once lived in Rochester. Otherwise, wait for the DVD. In the meantime, here's the official website, and here's the trailer.

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