Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Cold Light of Day [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  Fr. Dennis (2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review

On first impression, I found The Cold Light of Day (directed by Mabrouk El Mechri written by Scott Wiper and John Petro) to be something of a "confused" movie.  Its cast includes a number of "A-list" actors.  Yet it seems to me that the film can be best understood as being intended to be a "B" class "Noirish" (paranoid) spy-thriller.  I've long appreciated that "B" films do have their consolations, notably that "B" films often can touch on topics that higher caliber "A" films wouldn't dare. Indeed, the famed "Noir" films of the 1940s-50s generally centered around some unspeakable secret that would only be revealed "in the final reel," and this secret would explain to the audience the increasingly strange, desperate and paranoid behavior of the characters surrounding the main protagonist(s) in the story.

It would seem to me that this was exactly the intent of the present film, even if the result is then somewhat jarring.   It doesn't surprise me that this film hasn't exactly received critical acclaim either in Europe where it was first released or in the United States since its release here [IMDb] [RT] or that it hasn't done particularly well in the box office.  If one is honest, the "Noir" films 1940s-50s didn't do particularly well either.  By their nature, these films are "dark" and conspiratorial.   

So what's the film about?  At the beginning of the film, the story's central protagonist Will (played by Henry Cavill) -- 30-something, unattached, and with plenty of worries at work (he apparently runs a small business consulting firm centered in San Francisco, that's _not_ doing very well) -- arrives in Spain to join his parents played by Bruce Willis and Caroline Goodall) and his younger brother Josh (played by Rafi Gavron) and Josh's fiancee Dara (played by Emma Hamilton) on a vacation, which if it had been up to him, he probably would have passed on.  Sure the "vacation" was promising to be "really, really nice" (the family was renting a small yacht and was planning to lazily sail along the coast of Spain) but his mind was obviously "elsewhere."

His absent-mindedness actually does result in him being responsible for a minor accident on the boat on the first day of the trip.  So when the family anchors in a small inlet along the coast at the end of the day, he offers to swim to shore to buy some basic first aid materials to more properly bandage up a not altogether insignificant gash that he was responsible for on his brother's fiancee's forehead that resulted when a boom that he had not secured properly had crashed into her noggen.   He jumps off the boat with a small plastic pouch, swims to the village onshore, buys the bandages.  But when he comes back to the shore, is surprised to find that the boat had moved in the time that he was buying the bandages.  No matter, he climbs a small hill, spots the boat, not altogether that far away.  But when he swims out to the boat, he finds that it is empty.  What happened?  Where's the rest of his family?

He swims back to shore, goes to the nearest police station, and with some trouble (he doesn't speak Spanish and only some of the local police officers speak some English) explains that he wants to report the disappearance of his family.  A few police officers with a squad car go out with him to investigate.  But when they get to the shore, the police's reaction becomes somewhat strange.  Observing that the boat listing offshore with apparently no one in it their first instinct becomes to try to arrest Will.  Why??  I'm not entirely certain.  However even in the United States in recent years, whenever a "family tragedy" is reported, police tend to consider as the first suspects (now called "people of interest") to be the surviving family members themselves.   

As the local cops move to restrain and arrest him, Will's father emerges from the brush and rescues him.  Then stealing cops' squad car, they drive away.  As the two drive with the stolen police car back to Madrid (probably not too realistic... it's a long drive and one would expect that the local police would have reported their vehicle stolen to other authorities in the meantime), Will's father explains to will that there had been a "bit more" to his work than he had led on previously.  He had not been merely a "Cultural Attache" for the U.S. State Department at various embassies during the course of his career.  Instead ... he had actually always been CIA.  Wow.

Now "some fairly powerful interests" from whom (as part of his job) Will's father had "taken something" wanted that "something" back.  These "powerful interests" were now holding the rest of the family hostage.  "Did mom know what you were actually doing for a living?"  "Of course she did son.  Not all the details but she knew." "Why didn't you tell me or my brother?"  "To protect you.  It was always better that you knew less than more."

When the two return to Madrid, Will's father makes contact with his long-time partner (played by Sigourney Weaver) to find out what happened with the briefcase.  Much ensues, much of it not particularly flattering to either the CIA or (later) the Israeli Intelligence Agency Mossad.

Why would that be?  Why would much of the rest of the film not be particularly flattering to the CIA / Mossad.  Well, the movie becomes about the problems of operating any clandestine agency.  Much of the work of such an agency is done necessarily "in secret."  Therefore maintaining accountability is very, very hard.  The temptations to "go rogue," "do side jobs," even outright steal and cover-up one's petty and not so petty crimes with the cloak of "national security" must be great.

So I would imagine that many American viewers as well as generally pro-Israeli viewers would probably squirm through much of the latter part of the film even as we would grudgingly admit that these kind of things probably even almost certainly do go on.  Welcome to the world of classic Film Noir ...

Now how is the presentation of the story?  As I've mentioned above, it's rather choppy.  A case could be made that one would expect "something more professional" from a movie with Bruce Willis and Sigourney Weaver in it.  Yet, the choppiness of the film again evokes the Film Noir tradition where the vast majority of these films made no pretenses of being anything more than "B" movies where everything _didn't_ necessarily flow well.  What's always been most important in a classic film of this type was not the film's production quality but the "unspeakable secret" being revealed near the end.  And indeed, a film's very "choppiness" can actually _accentuate_ the unnerviness surrounding the "unspeakable secret" being first played around and then finally revealed.

One particular thing that I believe that the film did do quite well is to show indeed glory in the bewilderment that Will and later a young Spanish woman named Lucia (played by Veronica Echegui) who he meets along the way experience as they try to figure out what is going on.  Yes, there are both auto and "roof top" chase scenes in this film, but it's clear that both Will and Lucia are "amateurs" in these things.  (They get off the rooftops safely but ... ;-) ... how they do it, isn't exactly pretty ;-).   I found the portrayals of quite "ordinary people," Will and Lucia, in extra-ordinary circumstances quite endearing. 

So it's hard for me to be enormously rough on this movie.  Yes, The Cold Light of Day is _not_ an "A film."  But by all indications, it would seem to me that its makers intended it to be a "B film" of the Film Noir tradition.  And in that I do think that it more or less succeeds.

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