The Story: An go-getter hotel manager meets a charming man on a red eye flight. Then he tells her she has to help him kill the Secretary of Defense or he’ll kill her father. Tension ensues.
How it Came to be Underrated: This should have been a big hit, and it should have provided the big breakthroughs that McAdams and Murphy were waiting for, but it just went whiff. It didn’t help that a superficially similar movie with bigger stars and a bigger budget, Flightplan, opened at the same time.
Why It’s Great:
- Okay, unlike most of my previous selections, this is not a 5-star movie. This is a 3 ½ star movie. And that’s what makes it so valuable. This was a pretty dreadful decade for Hollywood, but not due to a lack of 5-star movies. Hollywood can still make great movies, but they can no longer make good movies. We’re still getting a handful of 5-star movies every year, but we aren’t getting any 3 ½ star movies any more. This movie is efficient. It’s taut. When it came out, I was amused by how many reviewers used the same word: “nifty”. Yes, it’s nifty, but these days nifty is pretty great.
- “Getting to know you” dialogue is some of the hardest dialogue to write, and it’s almost impossible to write well. It usually rings false, because in real life people don’t get to know each other. We don’t chat up single people at airports precisely because we are worried that they might be a psycho killer. We’ve seen too many movies. Characters in movies, on the other hand, are all-too-ready to chat. Thrillers present people who are ludicrously guileless, then the movie punishes them for that very quality. One reason this movie is able to get away with such a simple story is that it milks conflict out of the natural reticence people have towards these conversations.
Getting to know someone is always a minefield, even if they’re not trying to kill you.
- I love how Murphy resists the urge to turn on a dime when his true nature comes out. Instead he shows how the same qualities that can make a man intriguing can suddenly turn vicious with only a shade of difference. He’s marvelous.
- Writing a thriller is all about “plant and pay off”. You litter the script with “runners”, little bits of information that the character will need to know later on, and little snippets of dialogue that will come back later with greater emotional significance. If you do it poorly, the audience notices and they feel manipulated. Ellsworth, on the other hand, does a beautiful job here, because the runners (Dr. Phil, the sea breeze, “are you okay?”) don’t just have clever plot pay-offs, but they resonate with the theme. We can see what he’s doing, but we don’t mind, because it’s part of a story, not just a plot.
Underrated Compared To: Have I mentioned Flightplan? It was really bad.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Would you be surprised to hear that Craven’s first mainstream thriller, Scream, has actually aged well? Ah, but it has! Also, McAdams won my everlasting admiration on the brilliant, short Canadian TV series “Slings and Arrows”, so I won’t miss a chance to recommend that.
How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd, but not instantly.