In an American suburb in the late ‘50s (we know the year based on the cars in town, and the movie theatre showing North by Northwest), we watch a Romanian woman named Maja (Noomi Rapace) at a park. She’s a bit startled by a new guy named Thomas (Joel Kinnaman), who is whistling for his dog. When she runs into him in a store the following day, she decides to follow him home. I thought of the great scene in In the Bedroom where Sissy Spacek runs into the guy who murdered her son and is out of prison. You wonder what it is this guy did, but with the German accent and the year it all takes place, we have a pretty good idea.
While I think it’s a bit of a spoiler to say what puts the wheels in motion, the trailer and every review will. There’s no other way to describe it. Maja is convinced Thomas is the Nazi who raped her repeatedly in a concentration camp and killed her family. So she kidnaps him, ties him to a chair in her basement, and goes all Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on his ass.
The problem is that her physician husband Lewis (Chris Messina) isn’t so sure she’s right. By “right” meaning both the torture and the identity. And since this is the first Lewis is hearing about Maja’s war time experiences, he’s a bit flustered, to say the least. She may have been seeing a psychiatrist and having nightmares, but he didn’t know the extent of why.
The cast is stellar. I can’t think of another actor who would have had the facial expressions that Messina brings to the character, and I liked the fact that we never once feel like he doesn’t love his wife; even if he thinks she may have gone off the deep end. He pragmatically tries to get to the bottom of it all while exuding empathy.
Of course Rapice is a terrific actress, and as the possible Nazi, Kinnaman is okay; but perhaps it would have been a bit more interesting to have a character that wasn’t so tall and strong looking. While it ratchets up the tension, knowing if this guy breaks free he can probably mess this couple up — I think it would be much more interesting if the audience wondered if perhaps this is a case of mistaken identity, and the guy tied to the chair doesn’t look like he’d hurt a fly. Hey wait…the local cinema was showing North by Northwest. Wasn’t that about a character that was misidentified? But I digress.
The story goes down an interesting path when a female character (Amy Seimetz) is introduced. It made me think of how Woody Harrelson befriended a widow (Samantha Morton) in The Messenger. Yet I cringed when nosy neighbors (Jeff Pope) or police officers (David Maldonado) show up to question the yelling they heard. Those types of scenes have been done on screen for a hundred years now, and they’re always done poorly. The last time I remember a scene like that being done well was Sandra Oh as the nosy neighbor in Hard Candy (Ellen Page, Patrick Wilson).
Speaking of things being done before, this story has been done twice before with the same actor! Ben Kingsley was in Operation Finale a few years ago. That included the terrific Oscar Isaac and Melanie Laurent, and dealt with the capture of a Nazi who they had to keep in a house — until he admitted who he was. This film is a lot closer to Kingsley’s 1994 film Death and the Maiden, in which Sigourney Weaver plays a character that is convinced Kingsley’s character, who her husband brought home for dinner, is the man who raped and tortured her years earlier. That leads to her tying him up and trying to force a confession.
Now, with the Academy just announcing all these new rules for what a film has to do in order to get an Oscar nomination for “best picture” I thought about something that happened years and years ago. Film studios got a lot of flak for having characters always smoking on screen. An effort was going to be made to curb that. Yet after the fourth time Maja lit up a cigarette, early in the movie, I decided to keep a running tally on how many cancer sticks she’d light. There were 19 different scenes in this movie where she’s smoking (not that I’m trying to preach, I’m a cigar smoker). It was just amusing.
Writer/director Yuval Adler, who gave us the problematic Operative last year. This film will probably please fans more, but my wife and I were disappointed with the end results.
2 stars out of 5.