The new Carl Franklin thriller High Crimes (Fox) has a grabber of a premise. The black-and-white, documentary-like prologue surveys a 1988 massacre in an El Salvadoran village, the camera coming to rest on a woman weeping inconsolably over a body that is obviously her daughter’s. In the scenes that follow, Claire Kubik (Ashley Judd), a hotcha, glibly privileged San Francisco-based lawyer, beseeches her studly husband Tom (Jim Caviezel) for a quickie (her test says she’s ovulating), then heads off to court to have the case against a likely rapist thrown out. While she wins hearty applause at her fancy-pants law firm and savors the prospect of a partnership and a family, the audience waits for the collision between her comfy Marin County life and that opening Salvadoran carnage; and it comes when FBI agents ambush her husband and the military charges him with murdering civilians during a covert operation in El Salvador.
Did he do it? No, he cries, imploringly. Yes, say his surviving squadron mates—the ones who haven’t been killed. To help Claire defend him against the stacked military court, the general (Bruce Davison) evidently determined to keep the real story under wraps, and the soldier (Juan Carlos Hernández) who allegedly pulled the trigger, she turns to an ex-military lawyer called Grimes with a reputation as a raging alcoholic. A great setup gets greater when Grimes turns out to be Morgan Freeman, who’s stretched out on a ratty sofa with his hand resting lazily on his blue-jeaned crotch. Claire can’t believe this derelict, Grimes can’t believe this sultry pop-top, and you could power a small city on all that movie-star electricity.
The lickety-split pacing and resonant hodgepodge of red herrings and conspiracy theories recall the crackerjack Joseph Ruben-Wesley Strick courtroom thriller True Believer (1989), in which James Woods recovers his high ideals as a dissolute ex-radical. (It even features one of the same actors, the wonderful Tom Bower, who stops the show in True Believer with the words “Lee Harvey Oswald.”) But the strands in High Crimes don’t coalesce. Those red herrings somehow take over the picture; the thing itself turns into a giant red herring. I haven’t read Joseph Finder’s novel, but the movie feels as if succeeding teams of screenwriters had attempted to demolish their predecessors’ premises, so that almost none of the supporting characters’ motives or alliances make sense. Completely lost is the ever-timely, ever-explosive issue of how vast and byzantine powers (the military, the Catholic Church, any number of multinational conglomerates) attempt to keep a lid on their agents’ misdeeds and consequently compound the problems: we’re suddenly in Joe-Eszterhas “erotic thriller” territory, with the same old damsel fleeing the same old psycho. A righteous Salvadoran eventually pops up, but that grieving mother in the prologue seems in retrospect just movie fodder; and the issue of why and how civilians die in battle—and not by accident—is tossed aside with a shrug.
It’s not exactly a shock when a big-budget studio thriller gets fumbled like this, but it is a bummer when smart and talented people begin in roughly the same place and end up at such bizarre cross-purposes. Franklin had a mystical control in his first two movies, One False Move (1991) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995); he knew when to draw the moment out and when to compact it mercilessly. (The climax of One False Move—one of the most intense I’ve ever seen—lasts all of 30 seconds and reverberates for hours.) He must have gotten so nervous with all those suits looking over his shoulder that he lost his own pulse.
He still has his touch with actors, though. All the red herrings—Caviezel, Hernández, Adam Scott, Michael Gaston—do nuanced work, and the leads are magic. Ashley Judd has so much sexy aplomb—she idles at such teasingly high speeds—that most actors opposite her barely register. But Morgan Freeman is probably the most soothingly centered actor alive, and when they’re together (this is the second time, after the lame Kiss the Girls ) they fall into an easy rhythm that takes your mind off the rote melodramatics. Freeman has a scene where he falls (or jumps) off the wagon that’s pure genius, not for what he does but for what he doesn’t do—signal that he’s damned to hell. In fact, he looks as if he’s having a grand time in his cups, and that another drink would make it grander, and another grander yet, and another the grandest of all—until the next one. If drinking weren’t so fucking much fun, people wouldn’t so resolutely destroy their lives.
Lefty European directors can be galling when they rail against the inherent injustice (as opposed to specific injustices) of capitalism, but sometimes I think they’re the only ones who actually bother to scrutinize the system—who directly attempt to dramatize its impact on the ways in which humans interact. Laurent Cantet’s masterpiece Time Out(ThinkFilm) is the latest, and, I think, greatest of this breed: It’s like an Ingmar Bergman film with the loss of religious faith replaced with a sort of socioeconomic nebulousness. The movie is set in capitalism’s misty northern winter-light.
A middle-aged Frenchman, Victor (Aurélien Recoing), sleeps in his car, staring out into the fog and wintry rain at a passing train. His cell phone rings; he tells his wife not to count on him for dinner, he still has another client to see. He hangs up, stares at the traffic, drives around. When he does go home to see his wife and children, he tells them he’s up for a new job in Switzerland, and he drives there. He wanders through the glass office building of a Swiss multinational conglomerate, smiles at people in the corridors, and eavesdrops briefly on a meeting in which consultants discuss how to attract investment in sundry African nations. Then he tells acquaintances and former colleagues about the investment opportunities in Africa, collects a lot of money, and buys an SUV, which does better on the winter roads and gives him more room to sleep.
You could call Vincent a con man, but that doesn’t do him justice. He doesn’t resemble the American flimflam artists of yore or the testosterone hosers in David Mamet-land. Closing the deal doesn’t elate him: He moves in a kind of stupor, selling investments, making appointments, wandering the bars of international hotels, because that’s what he once did and is all he knows how to do; and when he actually stops selling, the scheme has so much life that people are calling him up and begging to buy in. In the 21st century, the film suggests, one’s source of income has become so disconnected from the physical world that there’s no apparent difference between what Vincent does now—mindlessly—and what he did as a hotshot consultant. His wife (Karin Viard) has doomy inklings that all is not well; but the only person who spots him for the near-delusional depressive that he is turns out to be a smuggler of big-ticket knockoffs who wants him aboard the team.
Inevitably, Time Out becomes less tantalizing when we begin to be oriented, to discern—through the narrative fog—the outlines of Vincent’s life: his family ties, his work history, his relationship with his prosperously retired father. But even at its clearest it’s one of the most eerily suggestive movies about business ever made. Recoing’s bland, slightly pudgy face recalls a lot of other actors—I thought of Klaus Maria Brandauer and the American comedian Larry Miller; you’ll think of more. His lack of strong affect is just right: He’s Everysalesman, gazing at the world through rainy windows. The most powerful stretches are wordless, scene after scene inside the car, the fog cut by the lights of passing vehicles, the silence by the tinkle of a cell phone or Jocelyn Pook’s yearning chamber score—like Fauré with the angst turned up. Time Out sounds static, but I wasn’t bored for a second of its 130 minutes. Cantet makes Vincent’s world both hellish and strangely comforting, the way a long drive by yourself can be comforting, the way solipsism can be comforting—a defensive posture in a threatening universe. The movie’s formlessness is a tonic. It gives you permission to surrender to things that in the real world would guarantee you’d never work again.