Indie Film Roundup
If you’re in Fort Worth, you’ll have to cover some territory to see the movies we’re discussing this week. That’s because their theatrical engagements are in Grapevine, Arlington, and Southlake. (Though one of them is also enjoying a weekend run at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.) All three are modestly budgeted pieces with recognizable stars, getting to our multiplexes before the summer blockbusters suck up all the air. Are they worth driving 20 miles for? Mmm, let’s see.
Back in 1976, Robert Redford starred in one of the great journalism detective movies of all time in All the President’s Men. It seems natural that he’d want to direct one of his own. His latest movie, The Company You Keep, is based on a novel by Neil Gordon, and at its best it reminds you of All the President’s Men’s brainy thrills. Yet it makes a curious error that prevents it from being a first-rate thriller.
The story begins with the feds swooping down on an upstate New York housewife (Susan Sarandon) who’s actually a left-wing terrorist with the Weather Underground who’s been in hiding for 40 years. While her story transfixes the nation, Albany newspaper reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) tries to talk to Jim Grant (Robert Redford), a local lawyer who passed up the chance to defend her. Ben soon discovers that Jim is also a former Weatherman, and his exposé sends Jim fleeing westward to avoid a decades-old murder charge from a Michigan bank robbery. As Ben follows his movements — which include doubling back on his tracks and abandoning his 11-year-old daughter (played by opera singer Jackie Evancho) — the reporter concludes that Jim isn’t trying to escape but to clear his name.
Redford casts a heavyweight lineup of veterans (Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Root) to play the long-estranged people whom Jim contacts from his past. If that’s not enough, there’s Terrence Howard as an FBI agent, Anna Kendrick as Ben’s ex, and Brit Marling as a radical’s daughter. Redford gives them all meaty scenes to play, and you may or may not be surprised to find a rumpled and bespectacled LaBeouf displaying incisive intelligence and holding the screen effortlessly with them. The lengthy strips of dialogue don’t interfere with the cloak-and-dagger machinations of these seniors — with Jim eluding the FBI at a New York hotel and a used-car lot — until the last 20 minutes or so, when the movie finally topples over from all of the plotlines being resolved at once.
Yet this movie doesn’t fail because of that, or even because of the director’s off-putting attitude that idealism is dead among America’s youth. No, these filmmakers just miss the most interesting thing about these characters: The old radicals started out thinking they could make the world a better place by bombing the right people, and then they lived long enough to see how little they accomplished. This is ripe ground for case studies in disappointment and blighted revolutionary fervor. Instead, the filmmakers sentimentalize the characters and focus on the outing of buried family secrets. The movie’s more interested in how Jim resolves his romance with the woman he once loved than how these terrorists have coped with the world passing them and their cause by. For all its competence and acting talent, The Company You Keep can’t help but feel small next to the issues that it ignores.
John Cusack has always had the potential for shadiness and moral ambiguity, something you can see in early performances in Eight Men Out and The Grifters. Lately, that side of him appears to have entirely taken over his screen persona. That’s not a good thing. The last time a movie engaged his subversive youthful exuberance was 2000’s High Fidelity. It’s sad to see the guy who played Lloyd Dobler be reduced to portraying a string of identically weary, beleaguered middle-aged men in forgettable stuff like The Raven, 2012, and War, Inc. This week’s thriller The Numbers Station belongs in the same class, even though you can easily imagine how it all could have been done better.
He portrays Emerson Kent, a CIA black ops guy who’s exiled after a hit goes bad. His new assignment is to protect Katherine (Malin Akerman), a cryptographer who broadcasts coded messages to agents in the field from a facility in a desolate spot in the English countryside. The job is nice and boring until one morning when the two are ambushed as they arrive at their workplace. Managing to get inside their bunker-like broadcasting station, they have to figure out who’s attacking them and what their plans are.
Since most of the film has the good guys locked inside and the bad guys outside, the movie leans heavily on the chemistry between the two actors, and there’s precious little. Akerman at least brings some bristling attitude to the early scenes, when Katherine is annoyed by Emerson’s reticence. Cusack, on the other hand, comes across as uninterested in the proceedings when he’s supposed to look emotionally hollowed-out. When you’re being out-acted by Malin Akerman, you’re doing something wrong.
Then again, Danish first-time director Kasper Barfoed could have done better to integrate the flashback sequences in which Emerson and Katherine try to piece together what has happened to the other agent-broadcaster team (Bryan Dick and Lucy Griffiths) working at the facility. The prologue depicting the incident that traumatizes Emerson is unimaginative in the extreme, and the banter between Emerson and Katherine is scripted so stiffly that you can practically identify the screenwriting templates used by writer F. Scott Frazier. These things wouldn’t matter so much if the movie simply worked as a thriller, but the plot is riddled with holes — why don’t the killers wait for the heroes inside the facility? — and nothing that happens generates any tension, not even the early development when Emerson receives an order to kill Katherine. This movie is a waste of space from a star who’s still struggling to find a new act.
Arthur Newman is an American indie film that we might well ignore if there weren’t two heavyweight British actors starring in it. Their efforts yield mixed results but distinguish this otherwise rote dramedy.
Colin Firth portrays Wallace Avery, a failed pro golfer-turned-Fed Ex manager in Orlando. Tired of his life, he stages his own disappearance, buys a car, and sets out on a road trip with a fake ID that identifies him as Arthur Newman and the promise of a job as a country club pro in Terre Haute, Ind. He meets Mikaela “Mike” Fitzgerald (Emily Blunt) when he brings her to a hospital after she OD’s on cough syrup by the pool at the motel where he’s staying. It turns out that she’s running away from her identity, too, so naturally she joins him on his trip.
As Wallace/Arthur and Mike break into people’s houses and try on their personalities, you sense that there’s a story about the fluidity of identity that could have been told here if first-time director Dante Ariola and writer Becky Johnston (who previously wrote the film versions of The Prince of Tides and Seven Years in Tibet) had bothered. Still, watching these people is more interesting than the subplot involving Wallace/Arthur’s angry 13-year-old son (Lucas Hedges) bonding with his dad’s sometime girlfriend (Anne Heche).
Firth adopts a low voice and a gruff, staccato delivery in hopes of putting over his American accent, a strategy that’s only partially successful. His character is a repressed man who gets in touch with his wilder side in the company of a free-spirited woman — this is one of those movies, despite the filmmakers’ efforts to complicate the scenario. Even if the script has left him high and dry, the performance still falls short. When Wallace/Arthur goes along with Mike’s role-playing scenario and pretends to be a Southern-accented older man, the moment just seems to come out of nowhere.
The actor you watch here is Blunt, who’s cast pretty much against type as a small-time criminal who’s flailing for direction in life. She locates the desperation and fear beneath Mike’s rootless existence and wild behavior — she’s convinced that her family history of mental illness will catch up to her. As good as she is playing poised, confident women, you just sense that one day she’ll dazzle everyone as a character who’s unstable and all over the place. That performance doesn’t come in this movie, but it’s enough to provide a slender thread of watchability.
The Company You Keep
Starring Robert Redford and Shia LaBeouf. Directed by Robert Redford. Written by Lem Dobbs, based on Neil Gordon’s novel. Rated R.
The Numbers Station
Starring John Cusack and Malin Akerman. Directed by Kasper Barfoed. Written by F. Scott Frazier. Rated R.
Starring Colin Firth and Emily Blunt. Directed by Dante Ariola. Written by Becky Johnston. Rated R.