It’s not easy writing about thrillers with tightly packed, intricately layered plots, as you’re always worried about giving spoilers away. As such I’m tempted to leave this one at “The film is excellent”, “John Cusack really does look like a startled fish” and “you should watch it!”. You’re probably going to want more than that, but it’s true and it avoids me putting in clues carelessly. So, don’t say I didn’t warn you from the start.
The first five minutes is where the layering begins, at it gets the tone and the narrative deep into your head. A serial killer is being transported to a hearing, and a bunch of strangers are now stuck in a motel in the middle of Nowhere, Nevada, due to a series of events shown out of sequence. As well as the aforementioned Mr. Cusack is Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, and a bunch of other actors that have been given lesser roles in bigger films so really get to enjoy working as a fantastic ensemble cast.
Minor roles don’t happen in this film, and neither do minor details, as soon the bodies start racking up almost as quickly as the weather turns to shit. The living try to work out who’s doing it, whilst getting whittled down in a variety of entertaining ways and beaten down by the weather. The violence isn’t quite gory or reveling enough to move into slasher territory, but it’s pretty strong for a thriller. And in a neat trick, the most emotively shocking deaths are at the start, so the characters with the least screen time get an equal measure of sympathy from the audience by going in very crunchy ways. After that, it’s just holding the audience in a mental stress position.
Is there a reason for this constant state of high tension? Well, those who grew up with Murder, She Wrote might start thinking that the film is using the drama, screaming, and soundtrack to sneak through cracks in the puzzle. However, after going back through to check, I can confirm that the various reveals are all played for and deserved. You could maybe work out the solution yourself by the start of the final act, but it’s very unlikely as several of its twists are set up for you to spot, letting your mind forget about the rest of what you see.
The overall effect for people not quite that into mental roller-coasters is likely to be different, so only watch this if you are ready to get locked in and pay attention for the full run time. It starts at a canter and only changes pace with the gallop of a final act. It is a mentally exhausting movie, not due to any intellectual complexity but just the amount of information thrown at you. For mystery buffs who are ready to get locked in and happy for their mental arithmetic to be proven wrong, and those who like high stakes and wild revelation roller-coasters, it’s a joy. For anyone after something a bit more casual, it’s likely to feel like a slog.
Killer movies like this don’t come around that often, Fallen is the last one I can remember being this brazen, but those that do are pure Treasure. That it was enjoyable a second time is a testament to the care put into it, both in front of and behind the camera. It’s smart, but without showing off, and, most importantly, without being smug. It wants you to have fun with it, and it wants you to check that it played fair. It also puts more care and attention into its characters than some more character-driven thrillers often forget to do.