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Derailed (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 November 2005
The first movie released by Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s first company since leaving Miramax, the company they founded (and named after their parents), is, perhaps ironically, a co-release with Miramax itself. Based on the cleverly-plotted novel by James Siegel and scripted by Stuart Beattie, it’s a thriller centered on sex and threats. The first American film by director Mikael Håfström, it’s perhaps too predictable for seasoned thriller fans, but others are likely to be caught up in the story.

Clive Owen is Charles Schine, a Chicago advertising executive with attractive wife Deanna (Melissa George) and teenage daughter Amy (Addison Timlin). The daughter is diabetic and needs a kidney transplant; Charles and Deanna, who also works, have been saving every spare dime for seven years in hopes of paying for the life-saving transplant.

They live in the suburbs, and Charles commutes to work. He misses his regular train one day, then finds he doesn’t have enough money for the ticket. A sardonic but good-looking woman, Lucinda Harris, (Jennifer Aniston) offers to give him the money necessary, and they fall into conversation; it’s only slightly sexy, but Charles, already somewhat tense, is intrigued.

When he arrives at his office, he’s surprised and angry to learn that his largest account has been taken away from him. He has an unusual relationship with office mail carrier Winston (rapper RZA)—Charles once caught Winston about to steal some computers, but didn’t turn him in. Winston is grateful, and likes to ask Charles about baseball history and statistics. Winston’s a hockey fan, not baseball, but is having a kind of contest with a relative.

Determined both to pay her back and to see her again, Charles begins seeing Lucinda for the occasional lunch. He remains very dutiful toward Amy, who sometimes lapses into frightening diabetic episodes, but more and more his mind is on Lucinda.

Finally, they decide—without words—to have an affair. Lucinda vetoes some hotels as frequented by fellow workers, and they settle on a somewhat seedy dive. They’re in bed on the verge of having sex when a masked man with a gun bursts into their room. He clouts Charles, takes their money and rapes Lucinda—repeatedly.

Afterward, Lucinda is terrified of going to the police; her relationship with her husband isn’t any too good, but she doesn’t want to lose custody of her daughter. Despite being battered, Charles reluctantly agrees.
And then gets a call from the intruder, Philippe Laroche (Vincent Cassel). He demands $20,000 or he’ll go to Deanna, revealing Charles’ indiscretion. Frightened, Charles pays up; Lucinda tells him she did, too, and that they’d better not see each other any more.

Laroche calls later, now demanding $100,000. That’s just about the amount Charles and Deanna have saved for Amy’s operation, so Charles refuses—and finds Laroche in his own home, chatting happily with Deanna. When she leaves the room, Laroche threatens to kill Deanna and Amy unless Charles pays up. Things get worse.

The novel had a terrific setup for a thriller tale; it’s not surprising the book was sold to the movies while still in galleys. The film is quite faithful to the book, though it has compressed the plot. The effect of this, however, turns out to make the story rather more predictable than it was in print. And a predictable thriller is usually a weakened thriller. So it is here. If you’re ahead of the game, it’s easy to grow impatient at the twists and turns. But basically, it remains a sound, suspenseful movie, nothing great, mind you, but solid and respectable.

Sort of like Clive Owen as Charles: solid and respectable. It’s a little unusual seeing Owen as the classic film noir/Hitchcock-style chump; his screen presence is usually tougher, more robustly masculine. zBut this casting serves the ends of the plot: you don’t expect Owen to fall into this kind of trap.

Nor do you expect to see adorable Jennifer Aniston from “Friends” in the role of a philandering wife and rape victim. There’s a line about her character near the end that feels shoehorned into the story to take the edge off her character, make her somewhat more palatable. Even if it originated in the novel, it feels forced. But Aniston is very convincing on screen; she’s not likely to become a major movie star, but she’s good enough that she’ll have little trouble getting more work.

French Vincent Cassel is terrific as the cold-blooded, sardonic Laroche; he makes the heavy occasionally funny, very hard and tough, and extremely intelligent. He’s just not as smart as he thinks he is.

RZA is very good as Winston, and fellow hip-hopper Xzibit has a good turn as Laroche’s henchman. When Giancarlo Esposito turns up as a police detective, his smooth professionalism is so welcome that it’s easy to wonder why this fine actor doesn’t work more.

Even though the plot is cleverly worked out, it includes elements that make it increasingly hard to accept. Charles’ money worries increase even without the threats from Laroche, so why doesn’t he simply spill the beans to Deanna, removing the hold Laroche has over him? Why don’t we learn just a bit more about Lucinda?

Director Mikael Håfström has clearly studied the work of Hitchcock and other classic tellers of suspense tales; there are occasional whiffs of homage here and there. He lets the pace slip occasionally, but that’s not surprising when you realize how many plot twists he has to keep juggling.

“Derailed” isn’t a classic, and possibly could never have been; in adapting the novel, a few of the elements that made it a particularly good read have necessarily had to be left behind. But Beattie’s dialogue is generally good, and Håfström handles the crucial violent scenes very well.

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