In Dead Man Down, Noomi Rapace plays a scarred New York beautician who asks Hungarian hitman Colin Farrell to kill the man whose drunk driving caused her disfigurement. There are gangsters getting bumped off one by one, more chat about Tupperware than you normally get in revenge thrillers, plus a clutch of wacky one-liners such as, “Rabbits don’t come in chartreuse”. And Isabelle Huppert pops up in a green facepack as Noomi’s deaf mother.
But these elements are par for the course for today’s thrillers, which seem to have given up all pretence to plausibility in favour of non sequiturs and baffling plot developments. Dead Man Down implodes in an imbroglio of unnecessarily complicated murders, a badly hidden secret room, questionable fashion choices and a collapsing house. It’s a Preposterous Thriller.
Take a couple of other recent examples. In Trance, James McAvoy gets hit on the head and can’t remember where he hid a stolen painting, so consults a hypnotherapist played by Rosario Dawson. As you do. The subsequent plot twists are so daft you’d have to be on LSD to have even a chance of predicting them. As for Side Effects, I suspect people were hoodwinked into thinking it was a Serious Film because the director was Steven Soderbergh, but it features two mainstays of Preposterousness – famous actors playing psychiatrists, and an evil masterplan.
Thrillers are not usually classified as fantasy, but most of them are as outlandish as any movies featuring superheroes, hobbits or wizards. Often more so – it wasn’t hard to grasp Frodo’s motivation when he was toiling towards Mount Doom, but try fathoming what’s going on in 88 Minutes, in which Al Pacino plays a forensic psychiatrist framed for murder, and races around Seattle like a headless chicken as the killer keeps calling his cellphone to say “Tick tock, doc”, a death-row convict conducts a live TV phone-in just hours before his execution, cars explode, and Al’s lesbian office assistant interrupts a meeting with a cry of “Milkmaid!”
In the world of the Preposterous Thriller, characters and their behaviour bear no relation not just to life as we know it, but to any sort of properly structured fiction we may have hitherto encountered. Here are some of the recurring motifs.
1) The Evil Masterplan, which often takes a lifetime of planning, and which is so outrageously convoluted and obsessive that you end up almost feeling sorry for the villains. Surely they could put all that preparation and ingenuity to more lucrative, less risky use – in banking, say, or government? See Flightplan, Red Eye, Wild Things, Mindhunters, Malice, Unknown etc
2) Fiendishly Elaborate Murders. One character in Mindhunters triggers a literal domino effect which culminates with their legs and most of their torso being flash-frozen by liquid nitrogen and shattering. Another character finds a packet of cigarettes which – quelle surprise! – have been laced with lung-eating acid.
3) Lesbians, whose very existence is often passed off as a plot twist. See Wild Things, Femme Fatale, Basic Instinct, Side Effects etc
4) The Mad Killer Rant, when the murderer traps the hero, but instead of killing him, launches into a long and demented monologue. See The Bone Collector, 88 Minutes, D.O.A. (1988) etc
5) Crazy Real Estate. Preposterous thrillers often feature flooded basements (Knight Moves, Abandoned) or buildings teetering on the edges of cliffs (Murder by Numbers, Final Analysis, Malice).
6) Well-known Actors Playing Psychiatrists. See the aforementioned Side Effects. See also Richard Gere in Final Analysis, Annabella Sciorra in Whispers in the Dark, and Bruce Willis in Color of Night as a colour-blind shrink so traumatised when one of his patients leaps to her death from his Manhattan office window that he flees to Los Angeles and takes on a new set of even crazier patients, one of whom is a serial killer who leaves a rattlesnake in Bruce’s mailbox. See also David Morrissey in Basic Instinct 2, who has an office in the Gherkin and gets hot under the collar about Sharon Stone, playing a bonkers Hollywood femme fatale who appears to have landed at Heathrow by mistake and got herself trapped in an X-rated episode of Midsomer Murders.
In fact, the only thing today’s Preposterous Thrillers lack is the sort of title that would enable them to sit proudly alongside their Italian counterparts, the giallo films, which revel in titles such as Four Flies on Grey Velvet or Black Belly of the Tarantula. Imagine how much more exciting Dead Man Down would have been had it been called Revenge of the Chartreuse Rabbit.
But I say bring it on, and the more preposterous the better. There are some directors, such as Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven, who elevate preposterousness to a whole new artform. And of course there is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, recently voted Best Film of All Time in the Sight & Sound critics’ poll. So you want to murder your wife? OK, first you need to find an acrophobic ex-cop…
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in May 2013.
ETA: Not sure how I managed to leave out Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again, which is as preposterous as they come. Here’s the “thrilling finale”, which naturally contains massive spoilers.
Amelia Mangan reminds me that Roger Ebert compared Branagh to Orson Welles in his review of this film, so bear that in mind as you watch it. Flashbacks, slo-mo, bombastic score, duff dialogue, confusing editing, absurd reaction shots… this sequence has it all.