Reel Opinions

Monday, November 21, 2005


Derailed, the new thriller from Swedish filmmaker, Mikael Hafstrom, will not win any awards come next Oscar season. That is, unless of course they decide to create an award for "Most Self-Describing Title". Yes, much like a train flying completely off its track, Derailed loses sight of its initial purpose. What begins as an intelligent and intriguing little morality tale degenerates into an increasingly ludicrous revenge fantasy. One where the double crosses can be seen from miles away. Though never boring, Derailed never lives up to its initial promise, and that's a shame. There are some good performances on display and obvious care went into making it.

Things start out strong enough as we are introduced to our main character, Charles Schine (Clive Owen from Closer). Charles has a good job at an ad company, a loyal wife (Melissa George), and a cute young daughter (Addison Timlin) who has been suffering from severe Level 1 Diabetes for years. The pressures of his job and his home life of keeping his daughter alive are slowly beginning to take their toll on him as the film opens. Perhaps that's why he's so intrigued by the beautiful woman he meets on the morning commute train to work one day. She is Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston), and there is an obvious connection between the two when they meet. Like Charles, Lucinda has a family. Although they know it is wrong, they can't help but be drawn together. Their meetings on the train lead to more intimate meetings in restaurants and bars. Before long, they are searching the streets of Chicago together in a taxi for a hotel, each one telling their spouses that they are working late that night.

The two check into a room at a shady building, and in a heat of passion, they begin to make love. Because of this they do not notice the mysterious man (Vincent Cassel) sneaking into the room, who promptly holds them at gunpoint, demanding their wallets. The two comply with his demands, but the man proceeds to beat Charles unconscious then rape Lucinda. After coming to, Charles wants to go to the police, but Lucinda refuses, since if the truth of what they were doing at the hotel was revealed, it would destroy her family, and she would lose the right to see her own daughter. The two try to go on with their own lives as if nothing happened (Charles tells his wife he got mugged after working late that night.), but shortly afterward, Charles begins to get threatening phone calls on his cell phone from the same man who threatened him just days ago. It seems the man wants money, and is not afraid to resort to blackmail to get it, since he knows the truth of what he was doing that night. The thug even begins to invade Charles' personal life, constantly taunting and harassing him into cooperating. With the money he's saved for years to support his daughter's medical needs slipping away due to this mysterious madman, Charles becomes desperate to find a way out and get his life back together.

That's all I will reveal of Derailed's plot for the sake of not spoiling the film's twists, but quite honestly, anyone half-awake in the audience should be able to see where the story is going long before the characters do. The film wants to be a Hitchcock-style romantic thriller, but it's just too simplistic, and the puzzle pieces fall into place too easily, no matter how the film toys with us. The film is supposed to be about a man's desperate attempt to correct a mistake he made without letting his family know. He does this a variety of ways - Everything from complying with the villain's demands, hoping he'll leave him alone, to hiring a friend from the mail room at the place he works who has a past criminal record, hoping he can threaten and scare the thug into leaving him alone. All well and good, but in order for a story like this to work, it needs honesty and emotion. We need to want to see the character, despite his faults, get his life back together. We do not get this feeling for Charles because he is never properly punished for his actions the way he should be. Not only does he get away almost completely scot free from cheating on his wife, but he also gets to pull off multiple murders with no consequences whatsoever.

Charles is continuously pulled into a world of deceit and lies as he attempts to keep his actions secret from his family, fear that it would destroy him and everything he's worked for. Yet, when it finally comes time for him to face up to the truth and tell his wife what happened that night, the film does not let us see it. He tells his wife "I will tell you everything...", then it immediately cuts to the next scene. We never learn his wife's reaction. It's obvious she forgives him, since they're still together at the end of the film and hugging each other, but since the film denies us the scene that the entire first half of the film has been building up to, it all seems emotionally hollow, especially since Charles' family plays such a minor role in the story they are curiously non-existent for most of the running time. This leads us to feeling indifferent to Charles' plight. That, however, does not compare to the path the film takes after this moment, where Charles suddenly becomes a revenge-driven, gun-toting vigilante hellbent on punishing the people who have been blackmailing him. The film switches gears from a potentially heart-felt thriller of a man dealing with his own mistakes to a blood-soaked action film, complete with a horror movie-style ending where we learn the villain is not as dead as we think we his. Numerous people are gunned down, even one innocent man who got wrapped up in Charles' fight, and once again, no consequences are dealt. There's no tension during these moments, because the movie almost seems to be constantly assuring us that Charles is going to walk away with no problems. This is where Derailed itself does indeed derail. Characters we once came close to caring about suddenly turn into cartoon mockeries of their former selves.

Before the film does veer off into revenge territory, the film does hint at being a passable little thriller. Although melodramatic at times, the plot works and is effective. It is during these moments that the character of Charles is hinted at being a much more interesting and likable character than he winds up being during the later half of the film. This is mostly because of the performance by Clive Owen. He seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders during much of his performance, and is very good at expressing his desperation and confusion in this bizarre and dangerous situation he has found himself in. He is able to make his character relatable for most of the film. Even when the screenplay is at its worst and is using Charles as a tool for a blood-soaked revenge fantasy, Owen is still able to find the little bit of humanity left in the character. As for the rest of the cast, Jennifer Aniston does her best that she can in the role, but ultimately seems wrong, especially when we discover the role she plays in the story. She still seems to be giving the same type of performance she's played in numerous light-hearted comedies for a part of the film, and that is a grave miscalculation when the later half of the film rolls around. Vincent Cassel does indeed seem to be reveling in his cartoonishly evil role as the thug that tries to destroy Charles' life, but he's never quite able to give the character any real emotions. He's simply evil for the sake of being evil, and is not far removed from the mustache-twirling villains of melodramas long ago.

Despite a good lead performance, Derailed just cannot hold up as a thriller, because we do not believe the later half for a second, and the lead character does not receive any form of punishment for his later actions. It certainly doesn't help that this story has been done better many times before in films such as Unfaithful with Richard Gere. Despite all its faults, the movie does at least hold our interest and is entertaining for most of its running time. I just wanted more, and the film's ludicrous plot twist that you can see coming from a mile away was not satisfying enough. The film's advertising poster states "They never saw it coming". You will have no such problem with this film's twist if you should happen to find yourself watching this film.

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