Review: ‘Civil War’ (2024), starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman

April 9, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny in “Civil War” (Photo by Murray Close/A24)

“Civil War” (2024)

Directed by Alex Garland

Culture Representation: Taking place on the East Coast of the United States, the action film “Civil War” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latin people and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During a civil war in the United States, a team of four war journalists take a tension-filled and dangerous road trip to the White House to try to get an interview with the U.S. president, who is under siege. 

Culture Audience: “Civil War” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Alex Garland, and war movies that have observations about political turmoil.

Stephen McKinley Henderson in “Civil War” (Photo by Murray Close/A24)

“Civil War” has some gripping action sequences, but it’s not a non-stop action flick about gun-toting heroes. It’s an effective commentary about war journalism, political unrest, and the psychological toll on people caught in the crossfire. The movie is set in the 21st century, but the themes in “Civil War” are timeless.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Civil War” had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival. It’s not a typical war movie because much of the story takes place during a road trip from New York state to Washington, D.C., with journalists as the central characters. The movie gives an accurate depiction of how being a war journalist requires a certain mentality, skills and attitude, including the ability to document what’s happening without getting involved.

The movie begins with an unnamed U.S. president (played by Nick Offerman) privately rehearsing a speech by himself at the White House before he gives the speech live on camera. “Civil War” does not offer a detailed explanation for why there is a U.S. civil war in this story, but it’s mentioned in the movie that Texas and California have seceded from the Unted States and formed a faction called Western Forces, which want to bring down the U.S. government. As eventually revealed in the movie, this U.S president (who is in his third term) is currently under siege by Western Forces, which want to assassinate him.

However, during this speech, the U.S. president is trying to put on a brave face during this crisis. He says of the U.S. military defense against this Western Forces attack: “Some are calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind.” During his speech rehearsal, he changes this statement to: “Some are calling it the greatest victory in the history of military campaigns.”

The movie then shows the four central characters who go on a “race against time” road trip to try to interview the U.S. president at the White House before he is possibly assassinated. Joel (played by Wagner Moura) is addicted to the adrenaline rush of being a war journalist. He is the one who plans to interview the U.S. president. Joel’s jaded photojournalist colleague is Lee Smith (played by Kirsten Dunst), who is considered one of the top war photographers in the media.

The original plan was for Joel and Lee to go on this trip by themselves. However, they are accompanied by a New York Times journalist named Sammy (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), who has an “elder sage” personality and uses a cane. Also along for the ride is an eager-to-learn aspiring photojournalist named Jessie Cullen (played by Cailee Spaeny), who thinks of Lee as one of her idols.

Lee isn’t very happy about adding these two people to the trip. However, Lee reluctantly agrees to have these extra two journalists join them in the press van. Sammy wants to prove that he’s useful in a media job that often discriminates against elderly and disabled workers. Joel thinks sensitive newbie Jessie can learn a lot from Lee.

Jessie and Lee met early on in the film when Lee came to Jessie’s aid in New York, during a violent street conflict between protesters and military police officers. During this conflict, Jessie accidentally got hit in the face with a police club while she was taking photos. Lee later found out that Jessie was staying at the same hotel when Jessie approached her in a lounge area to thank Lee for Lee’s help.

The rest of “Civil War” shows the harrowing events that happen during their dangerous and often-chaotic journey. However, there is also some dark comedy and a burgeoning camaraderie between these four journalists. It should come as no surprise that Jessie is the one in this group who goes through the biggest personality transformation because of what she experiences during the mayhem.

Jesse Plemons (who is Dunst’s real-life husband) has an uncredited role as a militant enforcer who holds certain people captive. Plemons’ role in the movie is not as big as his appearance in the “Civil War” trailer suggests: His screen time is less than 10 minutes. Two of Joel’s journalist friends named Tony (played by Nelson Lee) and Bohai (played by Evan Lai) have small but pivotal roles in the second half of the movie.

“Civil War” has several cast members who were also in Garland’s 2020 sci-fi/drama limited series “Devs.” Spaeny and Henderson are “Devs” alumni. “Devs” star Sonoya Mizuno has a brief role in “Civil War” as a rival journalist named Anya. Another “Devs” cast member is Jin Ha, who has a small supporting role in “Civil War” as an unnamed sniper who’s in a standoff with an unseen person or persons shooting from a large residential house. Karl Glusman (also from “Devs”) is in the same scene as an unnamed spotter who’s working with the sniper.

“Civil War” invites viewers to think about how you or people you know would react if this civil war really happened in the United States. There are scenes in the movie that show how some people want to block out the realities of this war and pretend that it’s not happening. Others want to jump in and do what they can to fight for causes they believe in, even if it means they will die. Other people are somewhere in between and acknlowedge the war but are just trying to survive without taking sides. “Civil War” doesn’t try to pass judgment on what unfolds in the movie, but it is an impactful story that shows there are no easy answers when it comes to war.

A24 will release “Civil War” in U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024.

Review: ‘God Is a Bullet,’ starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maika Monroe and Jamie Foxx

June 27, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Maika Monroe in “God Is a Bullet” (Photo courtesy of Wayward Entertainment)

“God Is a Bullet”

Directed by Nick Cassavetes

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2020, in New Mexico, the action film “God Is a Bullet” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A police officer becomes a rogue vigilante while investigating the deadly cult that kidnapped his 14-year-old daughter and murdered his ex-wife and her lover. 

Culture Audience: “God Is a Bullet” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching ultra-violent and mindless action flicks.

Karl Glusman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in “God Is a Bullet” (Photo courtesy of Wayward Entertainment)

Trashy and moronic, “God Is a Bullet” is a pathetic excuse to show brutal and violent misogyny. The dialogue is as cringeworthy as the scummy characters. Jamie Foxx is a co-headliner, but he’s in this bloated 155-minute movie for less than 15 minutes.

Written and directed by Nick Cassavetes, “God Is a Bullet” is based on Boston Teran’s 1999 novel of the same name. Even though the movie is adapted from a work of fiction, there’s a caption shown in the introduction of the movie that says, “Based on a true story.” At the end of the film, another caption states that although the movie is based on a true story, parts of the story were fictionalized for the movie. Whatever the filmmakers want to call the movie version of “God Is A Bullet,” it’s still time-wasting garbage.

The beginning of “God Is Bullet” (which was filmed on location in New Mexico) is an indication of some of the nauseating scenes that pollute the movie: A woman is seen vomiting multiple times. That woman is Case Hardin (played by Maika Monroe), a 23-year-old, tattooed vagabond, who has escaped from a small but ruthless cult that has about seven to nine members. The cult kidnapped Case when she was 11 years old. Case lived with the cult for the next 12 years, until recently, when she decided to leave the cult for good.

The mostly male cult is led by a disgusting sadist named Cyrus (played by Karl Glusman), who is shown committing almost every type of heinous violent crime you can imagine throughout the movie. The opening scene of “God Is a Bullet” shows Case, who is a needle-using drug addict, vomiting in a toilet in a jail cell. Some viewers will feel like retching when they see some of the gruesome torture and murder scenes in this vile movie. Case is in jail for heroin possession and assault with a knife.

It’s late December 2020, and people are in the midst of the end-of-year holiday season. An early scene in the movie shows the heavily tattooed members of Case’s former cult hanging out at a parking lot near a strip of retail stores. Now that Case is no longer in the cult, the only woman who’s left in the cult is Lena (played by Gina Cassavetes), who looks like a reject from a Marilyn Manson video.

A little girl, who’s about 9 or 10 years old, is playing with a balloon in the parking lot while her mother is shopping inside a nearby store. And you know what happens next: The cult members kidnap her. It’s later shown in the movie that this cult is involved in child prostitution and other sex trafficking of children. When Case was kidnapped as a child by this cult, she was forced to endure the same sexual abuse. Flashbacks of a pre-teen Case (played by Elise Guzowski) show some of this forced prostitution.

After this kidnapping in the parking lot, the cult isn’t done with its crime rampage. On December 24, 2020, the cult members do a nighttime home invasion of mansion, where they savagely murder two of the mansion’s residents: divorcée Sarah Hightower (played by Lindsay Hanzl) and her boyfriend Sam (played by Kola Olasiji). A third resident of the home is Sarah’s 14-year-old daughter Gabi Hightower (played by Chloe Guy), who is kidnapped by the cult.

The next morning, on Christmas Day, two people arrive at the house for a planned visit: Sarah’s ex-husband Bob Hightower (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Sarah’s businessman father Arthur Naci (played by David Thornton), who are shocked and devastated when they go inside the house and see the bloody crime scene. They also quickly determine that Gabi has been kidnapped.

Bob is a police detective, but he’s not very well-respected in his police department, because he’s assigned to mainly doing paperwork. Predictably, Bob wants to be the lead investigator of this kidnapping/murder case, but he’s blocked by colleagues, who think he won’t be objective, and because Bob doesn’t have enough experience doing police work outside of the office. One co-worker comes right out and calls Bob a “desk jockey” and a “seat warmer.”

Undeterred, Bob thinks that the cult is responsible and goes on a mission to find this nomadic and elusive cult. And it just so happens that Bob finds out that a woman who’s currently in a nearby jail cell is a former member of this cult. Bob visits Case and asks her for information in tracking down the cult members. Bob, who is very religious, is immediately judgmental of Case. When they first meet, Bob treats Case like she’s a degenerate.

Bob is somewhat remorseful when he finds out that Case was kidnapped as a child and forced to be in the cult. She says to Bob about the cult members: “We all came from family-oriented communities—even me.” Case later explains why, as an adult, she has not been in contact with her single mother, who still thinks that Case is missing: Because of all the crimes she committed while in the cult, Case has a lot of shame and is afraid that her mother will reject her.

Case gives Bob this advice on finding his kidnapped daughter Gabi: “If you want her back, you have to get her yourself.” She adds, “You think you can do this alone. No offense, but you don’t send sheep to hunt wolves.” It should come as no surprise that Bob arranges for Case to be let out on bail so that she can help him track down her former cult colleagues.

One of the first things that Bob and Case do is go to a remote desert-like area where the cult members have been known to congregate at a compound. A cult member named the Ferryman (played by Foxx) is still hanging out at one of the houses in this compound. The Ferryman’s skin looks like he has vitiligo. He also has a prosthetic left arm.

Bob thinks the best way to find the cult is to “infiltrate” the cult, even though he looks like he would never fit in with this scuzzy-looking group. It leads to a ridculous scene of the Ferryman giving Bob tattoos on parts of Bob’s body, while Case gives Bob a face tattoo. After getting these tattoos, Bob doesn’t look like a menacing cult member. He looks like a man going through a sad mid-life crisis.

Meanwhile, viewers are taken into the home of a couple with a very dysfunctional and miserable marriage: Maureen Bacon (played by January Jones), who acts like she’s some kind of femme fatale, is shown taunting the masculinity of her police sergeant husband John Lee Bacon (played by Paul Johansson), because apparently she’s fed up with their lack of a sex life. When she starts to ridicule him for liking gay male porn, he brutally assaults her. Maureen’s reaction is to laugh and tell John Lee: “You’re such a wimp!”

John Lee just happens to be a colleague of Bob, who has now gone rogue and decided to become a vigilante, with Case as his sidekick. The hunt for the cult members gets dragged out in mind-numbing ways that include showing more tortures and murders committed by the cult members, with Cyrus the one giving the orders and participating. The other cult members have names like Gutter (played by Ethan Suplee), Snatch (played by Rooter Wareing) and Shitstain (played by Zac Laroc), and they have no distinguishable personalities beyond the mayhem that they commit.

There’s also a sniveling drug dealer named Errol Grey (played by Jonathan Tucker), who gets caught in this maelstrom of destruction. Case knows Errol because he used to be her drug dealer. Case tells Bob that she’s “clean and sober,” but she still pretends to be a needle-using drug addict during their “undercover” investigation when she encounters Errol again.

Several flashbacks show that when Case would try to leave the cult, Cyrus would viciously beat her up. If Lena tried to come to Case’s defense, then Cyrus would attack Lena too. It’s later shown that Case and Lena had some kind of sexual relationship when they were in the cult together. Lena apparently had stronger feelings for Case than Case did for Lena, who gets very jealous when she sees Case with Bob. The purpose of the Lena character is to literally be a token female in a group of men who all seem to hate her.

As if this cesspool movie weren’t icky enough, a subplot develops where Bob and Case start to become romantically attracted to each other. It’s not their age gap that’s the problem. It’s the fact that this rotten movie wants to push a narrative that even while he’s searching for his kidnapped daughter and seeking justice, this broken man is still “hot enough” to possibly get some sexual action from someone who’s in no emotional shape to be in a relationship either. Case sometimes calls Bob her “boy toy,” which is a weird thing to say about someone who’s old enough to be her father.

Needless to say, with a terrible screenplay and soulless direction, the acting performances in “God Is a Bullet” range from empty to bottom-of-the-barrel awful. Coster-Waldau looks like he’s sleepwalking through a lot of his scenes. Monroe overacts in many scenes, where she’s trying to come across as part damaged waif, part redneck seductress. Glusman is basically doing a not-very-good caricature of a twisted villain. (On a side note, Monroe and Glusman previously co-starred as spouses in the 2022 horror movie “Watcher,” which is a superior film to “God Is a Bullet” in every way.)

The Ferryman character didn’t even need to be in the movie because he’s barely in the film and has no real bearing on the plot, unless you waited your whole life to see Foxx in a movie where he plays a tattoo-making character who has a prosthetic arm. Foxx’s presence in “God Is a Bullet” is just a manipulative “bait and switch” way for the filmmakers to attract viewers by using Foxx’s celebrity name as a headliner, even though his role in the movie is really an extended cameo.

The movie’s scenes where women and girls get assaulted, exploited or murdered are filmed with a particular glee that is simply atrocious. The film has a “plot twist” that is not surprising at all. There are violent movies that can have meaning if the story is compelling and has something interesting to say. “God Is a Bullet” is just an onslaught of asinine trash that is as putrid as the movie’s nasty characters.

Wayward Entertainment released “God Is a Bullet” in select U.S. cinemas on June 23, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on July 11, 2023.

Review: ‘Lux Æterna,’ starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle

July 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Lux Æterna” (Photo courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures)

“Lux Æterna”

Directed by Gaspar Noé

Some language in French and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in France, the comedy/drama film “Lux Æterna” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: One the film set of a movie about a witch hunt, the atmosphere of the set quickly descends into chaos. 

Culture Audience: “Lux Æterna” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Gaspar Noé, star Charlotte Gainsbourg and visually striking movies that don’t follow a traditional narrative structure.

A scene from “Lux Æterna” (Photo courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures)

People who watch the boldly unconventional “Lux Æterna” will get more out of it if they know it’s a satirical fever dream that unfolds in “real time.” In other words, forget about getting to know the characters in depth during this 51-minute movie. Underneath the rambling dialogue and chaotic scenes, “Lux Æterna” is a snapshot of how a movie set can reflect gender politics in society.

Gaspar Noé wrote and directed “Lux Æterna,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. People who are familiar with arthouse movies might already know that Noé is a very divisive filmmaker. The central characters in his movies tend to be very “unlikable.” Regardless of how people feel about Noé as a filmmaker, his movies are unquestionably memorable.

If “Lux Æterna” had been at least 90 minutes, it would have been a complete chore to watch. But a 51-minute running time for this movie just enough time for “Lux Æterna” to make a point without being repetitive. There’s not much to the screenplay (which looks very improvised), except to show—in a mockumentary cinéma vérité style—how quickly a movie set can shatter illusions that the movie set is a safe “bubble” but can actually cause a lot of the same chaos that exists in the “real world.” All of the “Lux Æterna” cast members portray versions of themselves with the same names.

“Lux Æterna” opens with director Béatrice Dalle having a freewheeling discussion with actress Charlotte Gainsbourg on the set of a movie they’re doing together. This unnamed movie, which is about a witch hunt, is being filmed in an unnamed location in France. Before they begin filming a scene where three witches will be burned at the stake, Béatrice asks Charlotte, who portrays one of the witches: “Have you ever been burned at the stake?” Charlotte says no.

The two women then discuss their careers and romantic entanglements that they’ve had during film shoots. Béatrice tells Charlotte: “I’ve never seen you in shit films.” Charlotte replies, “Oh, sure. I’ve done loads.”

Charlotte then talks about how she had a sexual hookup with an unnamed younger male co-star, who ejaculated on her leg during a sex scene that they filmed together. “The director told him he should’ve jacked off beforehand,” Charlotte adds. Charlotte then reveals that this younger co-star was 16. (In most of Europe, the minimum legal age of consent to have sex is 16.)

Béatrice mentions her difficulties with two producers, whom she calls Tic and Tac. She describes them as creeps who are “my Fagin and Scrooge,” in reference to the villains in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Later, Béatrice will experience a new slew of agitations on this film set.

In the lead-up to filming the “burning at the stakes” scene, Charlotte is interrupted more than once by an actor named Karl (played by Karl Glusman), who wants to talk to Charlotte about starring in a movie called “Danger,” which will be his feature-film directorial debut. Charlotte politely tells Karl that she’s too busy to discuss his movie, but he still bothers her about it. Charlotte is also pestered for an interview by a middle-aged man who works as a journalist for a magazine called Cinematic Eye.

Meanwhile, an actress named Abbey (played by Abbey Lee), who’s playing a witch in the movie, expresses discomfort and annoyance that she has been asked to do a nude scene that she didn’t agree to in her contract. The movie shows how Abbey’s concerns about this unexpected nudity are constantly dismissed. The more she speaks up, the more she’s made to look like she’s being “difficult” and is holding up the production, until she finally relents and agrees to do the nude scene.

“Lux Æterna” shows a lot of people talking over each other and sometimes shouting as the atmosphere on the set grows more hostile and disorderly. What does this say about director Béatrice, who eventually has a meltdown? Did she lose control of the film set because she’s incompetent, or was she outnumbered by too many people on the set who disrespected her authority?

“Lux Æterna” lets viewers make up their own minds, but the movie set depicted in “Lux Æterna” is clearly intended to be a microcosm of how women are often treated in a male-dominated world. The last 10 minutes of “Lux Æterna” have a lot of strobe light flashing that’s intended to make viewers very uncomfortable. (The beginning of “Lux Æterna” has a viewer discretion warning about these flashing lights.) The final images in “Lux Æterna” send a powerful message that when women are often shamed, demeaned or misunderstood for being who they are, they won’t always get a fairytale ending of someone coming to their rescue.

Yellow Veil Pictures released “Lux Æterna” in select U.S. cinemas on May 6, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on June 10, 2022.

Review: ‘Watcher’ (2022), starring Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman and Burn Gorman

February 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Maika Monroe in “Watcher” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Watcher” (2022)

Directed by Chloe Okuno

Some language in Romanian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Bucharest, Romania, the horror movie “Watcher” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a young married couple moves from New York City to Bucharest, the wife begins to suspect that a man in a nearby apartment building has been stalking her.

Culture Audience: “Watcher” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that take their time to build suspense, even if the movie’s ending is entirely formulaic.

Maika Monroe in “Watcher” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Watcher” succeeds more often than not when it comes to immersing viewers into a tension-filled stalker mystery. The cast members’ believable performances elevate the movie’s repetitive tendencies and predictable ending. As far as horror movies go, “Watcher” is slightly better-than-average, but it’s not outstanding.

“Watcher” is the feature-film directorial debut of Chloe Okuno, who previously directed the “Storm Drain” segment for the 2021 anthology horror film “V/H/S/94.” Okuno co-wrote the “Watcher” screenplay with Zack Ford. It’s a movie with a very straightforward, easy-to-follow story—even if it recycles the over-used horror concept of a pretty young woman who thinks she’s being harassed by a “fill-in-the-blank” attacker, but she has a hard time getting anyone else to be believe her. “Watcher” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

There are no ghosts in “Watcher,” but the movie’s protagonist, whose name is Julia (played by Maika Monroe), feels haunted by her own feelings of inadequacy of being unemployed in a country where she can’t really speak the language. Julia (who’s in her late 20s) and her husband Francis (played by Karl Glusman), who’s in his early-to-mid-30s, have recently moved from New York City to Bucharest, Romania, because of his job. Francis is a businessman who works for an unnamed company. The movie never mentions any further specifics about what Francis does for a living.

Francis, who grew up in the United States, feels comfortable living in Bucharest because his mother is Romanian, so he’s fairly fluent in the language. By contrast, Julia knows only a few words in Romanian and is starting to learn the language. She feels ill-at-ease about not being able to communicate in the way that she was accustomed to when she lived in the United States. There are enough people who speak English in Romania that Julia can get by on speaking English in most places, but she still feels like an “outsider.”

The language barrier isn’t the only thing that makes Julia feels insecure. When she was living in New York, she was an aspiring actress, but things didn’t work out for her, and she’s now given up on her dream to be an actress. In Bucharest, her employment prospects are also very slim. Her immigration status is unclear, since she doesn’t have a work visa. So, for now, Julia is a homemaker with a lot of time on her hands. Luckily, Francis makes enough money to support the both of them.

Soon after moving into their high-rise Bucharest apartment, Julia and Francis get the first inkling that something might be wrong. On their first night in their new home, Julia notices that a man in the high-rise apartment building across from theirs is looking directly into their apartment and staring at her while she’s alone. Julia can only partially see the man’s face, because the room he’s in is fairly dark, and his face is somewhat obscured by shadows. The man (played by Burn Gorman), who appears to be in his 40s, is of average height and build.

It unnerves Julia that this man might be spying on her, but there’s not much she can do because they’ve just moved into the apartment and haven’t had time to install drapes or blinds on all the windows facing this other building. Julia tells Francis that they might have a neighbor who’s a voyeur, but he tells her not to jump to conclusions. He also thinks that this mystery man is probably curious to see the new residents of this apartment.

Soon after Julia and Francis have moved into the apartment, they have a small dinner party with one of Francis’ male co-workers and his wife. It’s during this dinner that Julia and Francis first hear about a serial killer who hasn’t been caught and has been targeting young women in the area. The unknown serial killer beheads the murder victims and has been nicknamed The Spider in the media. You know where this movie is going as soon as you find out that the movie has a serial killer on the loose.

Julia then meets the neighbor who lives alone in the apartment unit next door. Her name is Irina (played by Madalina Anea), who’s about five or six years older than Julia. Irina asks Julia if she can hear any noises coming from Irina’s apartment. Irina seems relieved when Julia says no. However, Julia’s first impression of how soundproof the apartment walls are might not be a correct impression.

Not long after Julia and Irina meet for the first time, another creepy incident happens to Julia. She’s watching an Audrey Hepburn film by herself at a movie theater. There are only a few other people in the room, but she notices that a man has decided to sit directly behind her, even though there are plenty of other seats that he could’ve taken.

Julia can sense that the man is staring at her, but she’s so frightened that she doesn’t turn around to get a good look at this stranger. The theater is pretty dark anyway. Instead of moving to another seat, Julia quickly leaves the theater before the end of the Hepburn movie.

And then another incident happens. But this time, it’s at a grocery store, and Julia can clearly see the man who appears to be following her. Julia is pretty sure that it’s the same man who was staring at her from the apartment building across from hers. Julia and the man don’t say anything to each other, but he noticeably follows her in the grocery aisles, keeping enough of a distance away to not invade her personal space.

Julia impulsively hides in a stock room at the grocery store, in order to get this man to lose track of where she is. However, a store employee named Sebastian (played by Stefan Iancu) sees Julia in the stock room and tells her to leave this employees-only room. He doesn’t know much English, so he doesn’t understand her explanation of why she was in the stock room.

When a terrified Julia gets home, she tells Francis about this stalking incident and asks him to go back with her to the store, so they can look at surveillance footage to prove that the man was stalking her. Francis thinks Julia might be overreacting, but he accommodates her request. They find store employee Sebastian, and Francis explains to him in Romanian what happened to Julia and why they need to look at the surveillance footage.

The footage does show the man looking at Julia in the store and appearing to follow her. Julia exclaims, “See! He’s staring at me!” Francis is still skeptical: “Maybe. Or he’s staring at the woman who’s staring at him.” Because no crimes were committed, there’s nothing more that can be done about this incident.

After Julia has this scare at the grocery store, Irina invites Julia to hang out with her in Irina’s apartment for a drink. During their conversation, Irina tells Julia a little bit about herself: She studied ballet in London, but her dream of becoming a professional ballerina was crushed when she injured her knee.

Julia mentions that she once thought that she’d be an actress, but she’s has given up on pursuing that dream. Because Julia and Irina have a similar experience of not having their dream career in the arts, it establishes a rapport between them. It seems like Julia might have found her first friend in Romania.

During this get-together, Irina’s ex-boyfriend Cristian (played by Daniel Nuta) shows up and bangs on the door. Irina doesn’t want to see him, so she tells him to go away. When he leaves, Irina shows Julia the gun that Cristian gave to her. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that gun is going to be used. “Watcher” is not subtle at all when it comes to foreshadowing.

The rest of “Watcher” is about more stalker incidents experienced by an increasingly terrified Julia, who turns to law enforcement for help but also decides to do her own investigating. Meanwhile, because many of these incidents are a “he said/she said” situation, what Julia experiences is a little hard to prove. Far from being a supportive husband, Francis questions Julia’s credibility. And eventually, he questions her mental stability.

Yes, it’s another horror movie where the woman who’s the “target” is not believed and is perceived as mentally ill by certain people. However, where “Watcher” is most effective is in creating a growing sense of dread that something terrible really is going to happen. The movie also keeps viewers guessing until the last 30 minutes if the mystery man in the apartment building is just a stalker, or if he could be the notorious Spider serial killer too.

Monroe has been in other horror movies before where she’s played the “female in peril” leading role—most notably, 2014’s critically acclaimed “It Follows.” Therefore, she’s definitely got the skills to make her Julie character in “Watcher” look authentic and relatable. Glusman’s Francis character isn’t very interesting and isn’t in the movie as much as some viewers might think he is, mainly because Francis is at his job during a lot of the moments that Julia experiences terror.

However, what makes this movie work so well (in addition to Monroe’s acting) is Gorman’s ominous performance as the stalker. (The stalker’s real name is eventually revealed in the movie.) One of the best scenes in “Watcher” is when Julia sees him looking out his window, but she can’t be entirely sure if he’s staring at her. As a test, she gives him a slow wave. And he gives a slow wave too. It’s a moment that will give chills to viewers. The rest of the movie’s cast members give serviceable performances.

The movie’s last 15 minutes stretch some bounds of credibility and could have been handled better. And the way that the serial killer is revealed is sloppily edited, because the serial killer suddenly disappears from sight in a moving subway car when a certain person finds out the killer’s identity. Despite these flaws, “Watcher” is an overall solid horror thriller that doesn’t really do anything particularly inventive, but there’s enough to the story to keep viewers in suspense.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight will release “Watcher” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on June 21, 2022. Shudder will premiere “Watcher” on August 26, 2022.

Review: ‘Above Suspicion’ (2021), starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston and Johnny Knoxville

May 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jack Huston and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Above Suspicion” (2021)

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky from 1988 to 1989, the crime drama “Above Suspicion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A drug-addicted woman becomes a confidential informant to the FBI, and complications ensue when she gets emotionally involved with the FBI agent who is her contact.

Culture Audience: “Above Suspicion” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable and pulpy crime movies that put more emphasis on being tacky than being suspenseful.

Johnny Knoxville and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The cheap-looking and tawdry drama “Above Suspicion” is based on a true crime story, but the movie foolishly gives away the ending at the very beginning of the film. In other words, if viewers don’t know what happened in this case in real life, they’ll know exactly what the outcome is in the movie’s opening scene, which has a morbid “voice from the dead” narration from the movie’s main character. “Above Suspicion” just goes downhill from there.

Directed by Phillip Noyce, “Above Suspicion” is one of those “flashback” movies where the narrator is telling what happened in the past. And in this movie (which takes place in 1988 and 1989), the narrator tells viewers that she’s already dead. Her name is Susan Smith (played by Emilia Clarke), a divorced mother of two children. She was in her late 20s when she died.

In these flashbacks of her life, Susan is a cocaine-snorting, pill-popping, marijuana-smoking ne’er do well who makes money by committing fraud. She’s been collecting government welfare checks from the state of West Virginia, which she’s not entitled to have because she actually lives in Kentucky, where she gets welfare checks too. And occasionally, Susan sells drugs to make money.

In the movie’s opening scene, Susan says in a voiceover: “You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think. Thinking is painful. Knowing things is painful.”

To serve as a warning to viewers, a better way to open this movie would have been: “You know what’s the worst thing about a brain-dead movie? It wastes too much time. Watching it is painful. Knowing this movie could be so much better is painful.”

And sitting through all the cringeworthy lines that stink up this movie is painful. Chris Gerolmo wrote the “Above Suspicion” screenplay, which is based on journalist Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name. People who’ve read that book will probably find this movie difficult to watch because it takes what was fascinating about this true crime book and turns it into a trashy melodrama.

Clarke, who is British in real life, attempts to give a believable and edgy performance as a Kentucky mother who’s lost her way in life and ends up falling for and clinging to a seemingly straight-laced married FBI agent. But there are moments when Clarke’s true British mannerisms come through, such as when she slips up and says the word “whilst” instead of “while” during one of the many scenes where her Susan character is yelling at someone. “Whilst” is not the kind of word that would be in the vocabulary of a Kentucky hillbilly like Susan.

Because “Above Suspicion” reveals in the opening scene that Susan is dead, the rest of this 104-minute movie is really just a countdown to Susan’s death. Given the lifestyle that she leads and what’s at stake when Susan gets involved with a married FBI agent with a squeaky-clean reputation, it’s not hard to figure out how she’ll die. And it won’t be from a drug overdose. If viewers don’t know what happened to the real Susan Smith in this case before they see “Above Suspicion,” it’ll become pretty obvious what her fate will be soon after this movie begins.

Susan lives in a dirty and disheveled house in Pikeville, Kentucky, with her sleazy ex-husband Cash (played by Johnny Knoxville), who’s a small-time drug dealer. They’re still living together because they can’t afford to get their own separate places. (In real life, the name of Susan’s ex-husband was Kenneth, but he really was a drug dealer.) Susan and Cash’s two children—an unnamed daughter who’s 7 or 8 years old (played by Lex Kelli) and a son named Isom who’s 5 or 6 years old (played by Landon Durrance)—don’t say much, probably because they’re shell-shocked by living in such a dysfunctional home.

Someone who does talk a lot is Susan. She and Cash have arguments and physical fights with each other, and she gets irritable or impatient with almost anyone who crosses her path, except for her children. Two other people who live in Susan and Cash’s dumpy house are an unemployed couple in their 20s: Joe B. (played by Karl Glusman) and his girlfriend Georgia Beale (played by Brittany O’Grady), who don’t seem to do much but sleep all day. Joe met Cash when they were in prison together. Cash is the one who invited Joe to stay at the house after Joe got out of prison. Needless to say, Susan isn’t very happy about it.

In one of the movie’s early scenes, Joe makes inappropriate sexual comments to Susan, who understandably gets upset. Joe also calls her “Susie,” which she hates. But then, Susan also takes her anger out on Georgia about it. Susan bursts into the room where Georgia is sleeping and berates her about Joe being a creep. As Susan storms back out of the room, she screams at Georgia, “Pay me my rent money, bitch!”

Joe actually has been making money, but in an illegal way. He’s secretly a bank robber who has been targeting banks in cities near Pikeville, with Georgia’s help as his occasional getaway driver. Susan knows this secret because Joe’s red Chevy pickup truck fits the news media’s description of the getaway car. And she’s found Joe’s stash of cash with the guns that were used in the robberies.

“Above Suspicion” has some druggie party scenes that are exactly what people might expect. And it’s only a matter of time before fights break out at these parties. Susan’s volatile younger brother Bones (played by Luke Spencer Roberts) predictably gets in one of these fights, which leads to a particularly violent scene that was fabricated for this movie, just to add more melodrama.

Susan says in a voiceover: “Welcome to Pikeville, the town that never lets go.” She also says that in Pikeville, which is plagued by drug addiction, there are two main ways that people make money: “the funeral business or selling drugs.” And earlier in the film, this is how Susan describes herself: “I was a regular girl once. But things go wrong, as things will.”

Susan’s life takes a fateful turn when she meets Mark Putnam (played by Jack Huston), an ambitious and fairly new FBI agent, who has transferred to Pikeville to investigate the bank robberies. When Susan first sees Mark, who’s two years older than she is, she describes him like a hunk straight out of a romance novel. It’s lust at first sight for Susan.

And when Susan finds out that Mark is the FBI agent leading the investigation into the robberies, she sees it as an opportunity to get to know him better. It isn’t long before she drops hints to Mark that she knows who the bank robber is, but she’s afraid to be exposed as a snitch. Mark offers to pay Susan for bits and pieces of information, and she becomes his main confidential informant.

Susan dangles enough tips for Mark to investigate to keep him coming back for more. There’s an ulterior motive, of course. Susan wants to seduce Mark. And because Mark is so different from the men she’s used to being involved with, Susan starts to fall in love with him. However, it’s debatable whether it’s true love or if it’s Susan just wanting a ticket out of her dead-end life. At one point, when Mark asks Susan what she wants most in her life, she answers, “Rehab and money.”

Susan knows that Mark is happily married and has a baby daughter with his wife Kathy Putnam (played by Sophie Lowe), but that doesn’t seem to deter Susan from having a fantasy that Mark will eventually leave Kathy to be with Susan. When Susan and Mark meet in out-of-the-way and deserted places in other Kentucky cities such as Portersville and Martin, it’s just like the clandestine way that secret lovers meet. Susan starts to tell Mark that they both make a great team, but she wants to make their “partnership” about more than FBI work.

“Above Suspicion” portrays Susan as toning down some of her vulgar and mean-spirited ways to try to seduce Mark. She gives him a lot of flattery and attention. And anyone watching this movie will not be surprised when Mark starts to fall for Susan too because he’s become slightly bored with his marriage. But Mark doesn’t feel so strongly about Susan that he wants to leave his wife. Mark has a big ego, and he enjoys being with someone who fuels that ego. Huston’s portrayal of Mark is as someone whose top priority in life is being the best at his job and getting recognition and praise for it.

Even if Mark were an available bachelor, Mark and Susan’s relationship has too many other issues, including a power imbalance and a difference in their social classes. And most troubling of all for Mark’s career is that getting sexually involved with Susan is a breach of ethics and an automatic compromise of the evidence that Mark is getting from her for this investigation. And once the investigation is over, where does Susan fit into Mark’s life?

Clarke and Huston (who is also British in real life) aren’t terrible in their roles, but they are hindered by a subpar screenplay. Huston’s Mark character is often written as two-dimensional, while Clarke’s Susan character displays over-the-top trashiness that becomes increasingly annoying, especially when Susan begins stalking Mark and his wife Kathy. It’s supposed to make Susan look emotionally needy, lovesick and vulnerable, but her obsession with Mark only makes her look mentally unhinged. As for Knoxville, his abusive Cash character is just another version of the scumbags that Knoxville usually portrays in movies.

There are some supporting characters in the movie that don’t add much to the story. Susan has a concerned older sister named Jolene (played by Thora Birch), who lives in West Virginia and occasionally calls Susan. Mark has a colleague named Todd Eason (played by Chris Mulkey), who’s retiring from the FBI in six months. There are an informant named Denver Rhodes (played by Omar Benson Miller) and an international drug dealer named Rufus (played by Brian Lee Franklin), who both appear in the last third of the movie.

Noyce’s direction of “Above Suspicion” aims for the movie to be gritty noir, but it’s really just low-budget junk. It’s very easy to predict how this story is going to end. And until that ending, which Susan already blabbed about in the voiceover narration, it’s just one scene after another of contrasting Susan’s riff-raff life with Mark’s law-enforcement life. These two worlds end up crashing in the most horrific of ways. And it’s too bad that the overall result is that “Above Suspicion” is a cinematic train wreck.

Lionsgate released “Above Suspicion” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 14, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 18, 2021.

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