One opportunity afforded by the lack of a theatrical middle-class is the continued onslaught of “stealth cinema,” films that premiere on V.O.D. (with scant, scattered theatrical screenings) often featuring aging but still potent movie stars. Where big budget films rely increasingly on outsized concepts, making the historic norm of “movie star” increasingly archaic, these smaller films rely on that face (Nicolas Cage, Antonio Banderas) viewers recognize which moves them to order the film online or choose the film at the local Red Box.
Another opportunity is directors, who through ageism and other measures, are not easily employable in the new Hollywood system. Solid professional filmmakers like Atom Egoyan, Peter Bogdanovich, Walter Hill and more are continually employed to make these smaller projects. “Straight to Video” no longer clearly proves a lack of worth.
Right below the level of those heavyweights are other quite capable directors who have also been cut adrift, but without the fanfare. Two films that came out on Blu-Ray in the last month are made by interesting veterans that have not gotten a lot of space in film journals, but who have made impressive films throughout their careers. THE DROWNING is a psychological thriller starring Julia Stiles and Josh Charles, directed by Bette Gordon, best remembered for her mid-1980s New York indie film VARIETY. THE HUNTER’S PRAYER is a euro-action-thriller featuring AVATAR’s Sam Worthington directed by Jonathan Mostow, veteran helmer of the excellent Kurt Russell road thriller BREAKDOWN, TERMINATOR 3 and other serviceable action flicks. Neither of these two new releases is perfect, buy they are good enough to make you want to pass them on to potentially interested parties.
Both are worth seeing, with some caveats. Gordon has only managed four produced films in her thirty-year plus career, so THE DROWNING Is a bit of a surprise offering, and proves an effective psychological thriller featuring married psychologist Charles saving the life of a young man, impressively played by Avan Joquia, he helped convict of murder 12 years earlier. It’s an interesting drama that makes the most of its capable cast. Gordon is still best known for VARIETY (I remember the ad showing up in the Village Voice for the better part of a year), but she knows how to make a professional-looking film and guides her actors to strong performances — the somewhat sketchy script, with some underdeveloped character motivations, is the film’s major concern.
These smaller productions clearly are shot in a rush; never mind the recurrent non-union Bucharest, Bulgaria and Atlanta locations, the lack of extras and name supporting actors are tip-offs too. Still, modern technology means these films often look terrific, meaning theatrical, and where they don’t skimp is paying a few name actors to show up. But whereas Bruce Willis mumbles his way through a series of three-scenes and done cameos in recent action films, you also often get actors committed to playing parts that aren’t 90% shot in front of a green screen where dinosaurs will be inserted later. Stiles, who often is trapped in parts that call on her to be a shrill scold, is well served by this material, and Charles is fine, finding a rapport with fellow characters even when psychologically his character’s choices are questionable. Gordon, as one might expect from her indie leanings, doesn’t seem so interested in the traditional Ashley Judd-thriller plot developments, and is more invested in psychological shading and confusion. I also liked Gordon’s last, quite overlooked film, HANDSOME HARRY, with Jamey Sheridan and Campbell Scott, among others. Let’s hope that Gordon, who also teaches film at Columbia University, doesn’t have to wait until 2025 for the next one.
HUNTER’S PRAYER isn’t quite as interesting; it is further evidence that veteran Mostow is a highly competent director. The plot is very generic, plucked from the same TAKEN cabbage patch so many recent international thrillers are: a hitman who develops a conscious and does all he can to keep a young girl alive from the many rather generic baddies who want her dead. These films always are limited by the hero always being an efficient killing machine superior to all who go after him; PRAYER tries to offset this by having Worthington be an addict who needs regular fixes, but this quirk only goes so far. He sweats, grimaces, and detoxes, and still proceeds to obliterate all adversarial comers. The lensing is efficient and the film fast-paced, but the largely Hungarian locations are pretty but not particularly distinct, and a few scenes really could have had more extras (a shootout in a suspiciously unpopulated highway rest stop in the daylight hours becomes distracting when no extras get caught up in the mayhem). Nevertheless, Mostow keeps the ritualistic train on the tracks and the film leads pretty much exactly where you think it will go, without adorning the framework with much frills. He gets Worthington to do his professional, stoic best and gets a strong performance from young Odeya Rush, who creates empathy in a fairly generic damsel-in-distress part. Mostow knows what the film needs to deliver to its target audience, and he delivers. Neither rain nor snow nor a 12-day shoot in Eastern European locations will stop this guy.
Obviously as years pass, and opportunity dwindles, lots of quality directors are quite responsive to the opportunities provided by these lower-budget, low-profile releases. From the evidence, neither Gordon nor Mostow’s talent is undimmed. Gordon delivers THE DROWNING with a welcome, evocative, enigmatic psychological complexity, and with A HUNTER’S PRAYER Mostow provides a more-traditional streamlined action experience. Keep on trucking.