It's no surprise that this creep-out horror thriller is packed with whizzy visual invention, since it's directed by Gore Verbinski, who made the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, as well as Rango and The Lone Ranger. And the screenplay by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) starts well, stirring in some resonant themes amid the growing, gnawing nastiness. Unfortunately, over the film's overlong running time, it just gets sillier and simpler.
The story centres on Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), a rising star workaholic New York broker who's been caught in some dodgy dealings. To redeem himself, he is sent to collect the company's boss (Harry Groener) from a Swiss sanatorium, where he seems to have gone native. Or something. But when Lockhart arrives at the picturesque Alpine castle, things quickly begin to spiral out of control. He's injured in a car crash, forcing him to become a patient at the spa alongside the rather too-cheerful elderly residents, who are undergoing some sort of odd treatment. As Lockhart digs deeper, he runs afoul of the director, Dr Volmer (Jason Isaacs), especially when he befriends the doctor's star patient, the oddly naive Hannah (Mia Goth). And as things get freakier, Lockhart begins to worry that he'll never get out of here.
Verbinski develops a darkly gothic atmosphere from the first frames of the film, and things get increasingly offbeat from there. Some elements are blackly comical, but the overall tone is grotesque, with a special emphasis on slimy eels, which appear alarmingly everywhere Lockhart looks. Meanwhile, Haythe stirs in a convoluted mythology about the mad baron who lived in the castle 200 years earlier. When combined with underlying themes about the stresses of modern-day life and the relative morality of Wall Street bankers, this is all rather intriguing. Unfortunately, these clever textures slip away quickly, leaving little more than a series of repetitive set pieces designed to give the audience the jitters as they remind us of other movies.
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Everything about this film screams excess, from the ludicrous two-and-a-half hour running time to the whopping scale of the action sequences to Johnny Depp's bizarro costume. But this reunion between Depp and his original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy director Verbinski is a solidly made romp that actually has some genuine laughs and thrills. There's certainly never a dull moment.
It's set in late-1860s Texas, where John Reid (Hammer) arrives to visit his brother Dan (Dale), whose wife Rebecca (Wilson) is John's former flame. After an elaborate prison break, John is deputised and joins the posse of rangers hunting down the escapee. When they're ambushed, John is the lone survivor, nursed back to health by quirky outsider Tonto (Depp), a Native American who knows how to get to the bottom of what's going on here. So they go undercover to find the truth, which involves a secret silver mine, construction on the first transcontinental American railway, and tensions between European settlers and the native Comanche community.
The script is a complex riot of details that resolutely refuse to gel into a coherent picture until the screenwriters are good and ready to fill in the gaps. In the mean time, they throw the characters into a series of madcap action set-pieces that are wildly cartoonish in the way everyone just dusts themselves off afterwards and carries on. From train crashes to horseback chases, this is non-stop action. And Verbinski is an expert at staging these massive sequences, so they're a lot of fun to watch, especially when the film is populated with such energetic characters.
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Dwayne Johnson tries to flex his acting muscles in this smarter-than-usual action movie, based on a true story that gets under our skin. He's never played someone as fragile as this, which is fascinating even if the film ultimately can't resist cranking up the action while turning rather preachy.
Johnson plays John, a construction company owner whose bright 18-year-old son Jason (Gavron) is caught in a drugs sting by an undercover agent (Pepper). Jason is facing 10 years in prison, and offered a way out if he can finger another drug dealer. But he doesn't know any, since he was set up himself. So John makes a deal with a federal prosecutor (Sarandon) to find a big dealer himself. He convinces reluctant ex-con employee Daniel (Bernthal) to work with him, contacting a local dealer (Williams) before going after the kingpin (Bratt). But of course things get increasingly dangerous the deeper they go.
While Johnson's acting chops aren't terribly subtle, he's such a charismatic screen presence that we are fully engaged with him from the start. The tender scenes between him and Gavron add weight to the whole story, while the tetchy connection between him and Bernthal keeps the film on a knife edge. By contrast, Sarandon and Pepper are pretty much just scene-stealing sharks using innocent people to do their dirty work.
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