Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Interview

Eddie Fleming: Just goes to show you how the mind works, doesn't it? 

Det. John Steele: I don't know Mr. Fleming. How does the mind work? 

I've always found the term 'cat and mouse thriller' to be somewhat misleading when it's applied to films (ex: The Usual Suspects, Sleuth, The Prestige and others of that ilk). Outside of certain cartoons, the relationship between a cat and a mouse has always been rather one-sided--there's the hunter and then there's the hunted. While a mouse here or there might escape to live another day scrabbling in our walls, feasting on crumbs and insulation, there's never any doubt that at the end of the day, the cat will inevitably come out on top. However, in thrillers like these, that's not always the case. Sometimes the 'mouse' wins the day; sometimes the 'mouse' bites back.

The 1998 Australian film The Interview begins simply enough with a rather unassuming, middle-aged man named Eddie Fleming (Hugo Weaving) being rousted from sleep by the police and roughly taken from his modest apartment under the pretense of being a chief suspect in the theft of a car. As is quickly made clear to both the audience and Eddie, this is merely a ruse for inquiries of a much more sinister, almost Kafka-esque nature. And as rapidly becomes apparent to the the Detectives John Steele (Tony Martin) and Wayne Prior (Aaron Jeffrey), there is far more to the quaking Eddie Fleming--whom at first they bully and humiliate quite easily--than initially meets the eye. While the interrogation drags on, and the stakes are made clearer to both detectives and suspect, each side begins to feel the pressure: Fleming from the detectives (whose techniques are often less than savory, bordering on illegal) and Steele/Prior from their superiors--who impatiently demand results and may well have insidious agendas of their own. To reveal more would be to spoil the experience, as the film wastes no time diving headlong into its contorting plot.

With The Interview, writer/director Craig Monahan strips this misnamed genre bare. About 80 percent of the film consists of nothing more than a conversation between the two detectives (with Det. John Steele taking lead) and the ever more enigmatic Mr. Fleming. Whether due to budget constraints or by choice, these lengthy scenes in the interrogation room--where the single-camera stalks back and forth between the principals like an impatient, predatory beast--feel decidedly claustrophobic. Monahan and his cinematographer craft a quite uncomfortable and stifling atmosphere where we too begin to squirm under the scrutiny of the detectives and at Mr. Fleming's ever evolving demeanor. Most of the empty space in this film is cloaked in shadow, leaving one to wonder what ugly truths lurk just outside of view. This ambiance causes us to question, along with the characters, just who is pulling the strings and why. A lion's share of the credit also belongs to the script, which, heavy on ambiguity and light on answers, obscures the truth to the very last frame... and perhaps even beyond.

Even with all the technical competence and gripping, twirling story, the film's success lays largely with its cast, with only three real parts to speak of. The young Det. Wayne Prior is a hothead, played with all the brutish physicality that entails. Aaron Jeffrey plays the part with relish and enthusiasm and all the necessary violence that the 'bad cop' role demands. Tony Martin, as the older and more experienced of the pair, leavens his performance with the proper restraint. After a while, it becomes clear he's the heart of this otherwise cold and dingy film. His character walks a delicate line, caught between his own thirst for the truth (often causing him to turn a blind eye to his partner's more questionable tactics) and the skeletons of his past, which rise up inconveniently to threaten not just his investigation, but also his career.

Both of these admittedly solid performances pale in comparison to Hugo Weaving, who is in all likelihood the finest Australian actor of his generation (anyone who knows him only as Mr. Smith/Elrond would do well to check out his work from his home country). The character of Eddie Fleming calls for an actor capable of astonishing nuance--and requires them to run through a wide range of emotions in short order. Fleming is a bewildered innocent one minute, a master manipulator the next. Weaving manages both roles effortlessly while also hitting every note in between just as well. In a career littered with diverse, competent performances, Weaving's Eddie Fleming is easily his most accomplished work.

Comparisons between this film and The Usual Suspects are easy to make, they have similar set-ups (two cops, a suspect and an interrogation room), a similar dark style and are both chock-full of unexpected twists. But whereas The Usual Suspects ties up all its loose-ends with one well-edited finale. The Interview deigns to leave most of its questions dangling loose in uncertain winds. Who or what we choose to believe is ultimately left up to us.

Monahan clearly enjoys toying with his audience, playing on our on expectations and prejudices against the overreaching arms of law-enforcement before pulling the chair out from under us, upending all our assumptions and leaving us to question what had before seemed obvious. In less competent hands, this might make for a frustrating experience, but in the hands of Monahan, Weaving, Martin, et al, we're left with a mesmerizing thriller which works its hooks into you and then mercilessly leaves you begging for more. Craig Monahan, unlike his detectives, is clearly a filmmaker intimately familiar with how the mind works.