mystery

Wind River

A stark and powerful mystery thriller, with a mood of deep melancholy that stuck with me long after I’ve left the theatre. Part of it is the natural setting, the vast, silent wintry expanses of snow and forbidding mountains of Wyoming, where the story takes place. While beautiful in its own way, this desolate environment makes for a harsh life. Another part is the sorrow and desperation of the people who live on the edge of this wilderness, and the hard-hitting, ugly violence of some key scenes. And there’s the haunting, sparse score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, an animal tracker who, on one of his hunting expeditions, finds the frozen body of a Native American young woman, who we’ve already seen at the very start of the film, running barefoot through the snow under a full moon. Apart from the tribal police, the case is also investigated by the FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who comes from Las Vegas ill-equipped for the brutal life-threatening cold, and is out of her depth while trying to get the information from the locals. This is an insular community, riddled with poverty and drug abuse and mistrustful of the government. Cory and Jane end up working together to solve the mystery; Cory’s tracking skills come in handy and he’s on intimate terms with the people, having been married to a local Native American woman. Currently divorced after a devastating personal loss, Cory also has his own reasons for helping out with the case.

The direction is assured and there are fine performances from Olsen and Graham Greene as the weary no-nonsense tribal chief, and thankfully no forced romance between Cory and Jane, which I was dreading a bit since their first meeting could have been a meet-cute in another movie. I haven’t watched Hurt Locker and I’ve only seen Jeremy Renner in bit parts here and there, but in Wind River he gets a rich lead role and puts in a stellar performance. Some of his best scenes are the heartfelt conversations with the father of the dead girl, whose stoic and macho veneer crumbles in his grief. These scenes felt so genuine it was the closest I was to tears at the cinema in a long time.

For some reason, the online booking system messed up my order, and instead of the third row from the back I got designated a seat in the second row of a very tiny cinema. After spending a few very uncomfortable minutes craning my neck up and getting nausea from the occasional handheld camera shots, I rebelled and went to the back, where I located a lucky last free seat. If it wasn’t available I’d probably be forced to just walk out.

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The Private Patient by P.D. James

I quite enjoyed the previous P.D. James murder mystery I’ve crossed paths with, but I didn’t have as much success with this last entry featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Though seeing that it’s the 14th novel in the series, it’s not enough for me to cool down on them altogether. After all, a series this long-running is bound to produce some duds.

The scene of the crime is the fictional grand country estate called Cheverell Manor, situated a few hours out of London, in Dorset. Once the property of a distinguished family, it has been converted to a private clinic belonging to George Chandler-Powell, renowned plastic surgeon. The victim is one his patients, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn who visits the clinic to remove a disfiguring facial scar. She comes to the manor twice, once on a preliminary visit to get acquainted with the place, and again later for her big day, which ends with her death. In between, the novel implies, she just can’t help her journalistic instincts and digs up some dirt on one of the manor employees. Or maybe it’s a red herring and the murder was about something else entirely. It’s up to Adam Dalgliesh and his team to find out.

This is a classic murder-in-isolated-setting setup, and it was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, but only just. The most disappointing aspect of the whodunnit itself is that it’s resolved not so much through the efforts of investigation, but with the culprit handing themselves in via a bizarrely melodramatic turn of events. The most disappointing feature of the novel is the dreadful amount of padding which grinds the pace to a screeching halt. I am not necessarily against the descriptive passages, and I appreciate the attempts to flesh out the characters and treat them all with empathy, no matter how minor. But good lord do I really need to know the exact configuration of a character’s living room, with a full list of furniture and where everything is placed? Then there are detailed descriptions of people’s appearances, meals and car trips from Dorset to London which could be edited out with no loss to the story whatsoever. The book also detours into the personal life of Dalgliesh, which I’d probably be more interested in if I had more attachment to his character. To be fair, it would perhaps be wiser to read some more of the earlier books before diving into the last one.

Along the way, there are some insightful thoughts on class and the changing British society, a few well-written characters and atmospheric settings (spiced up with a ghoulish story of a burnt witch). So it wasn’t a total waste of time, but there was no reason for this book to be almost 400 pages long and it could have done with some ruthless snipping.

Mulholland Drive

mulholland-driveRed curtains and eerie Angelo Badalamenti score? Must be a David Lynch movie! Despite being a massive Twin Peaks fan, I’m not all that familiar with his filmography, so I decided to watch this movie which was also a big breakthrough for Our Own Naomi Watts. I was prepared for off-kilter weirdness, but it’s safe to say the movie exceeded my expectations on that front and messed with my head like few films ever had since… well Twin Peaks probably. There’s something about the Lynch brand of horror – the distortion of the mundane, the vivid unsettling imagery – that really gets under my skin.

The movie starts off as a conventional thriller – a young beautiful woman with dark femme fatale looks (Laura Harring) survives a car crash at Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles and suffers a complete memory loss. She wanders around in a daze before taking refuge in a random apartment, where she is found by Betty (Naomi Watts), a sweet and impossibly wholesome Midwestern girl fresh off the plane who’s come to LA to seek fortune as an actress. Betty takes pity on the stranger, who calls herself Rita after a Rita Hayworth movie poster she sees in the apartment, and they try to piece the mystery of Rita’s identity together. Meanwhile, other characters with no obvious connections are introduced: a hotshot Hollywood director (Justin Theroux, looking like a younger prettier version of JJ Abrams) is pressured to cast a certain starlet in his movie or else; a hitman bungles an assignment by piling up more corpses than necessary; two men find something terrifying behind a diner.

Without spoiling anything, there comes a point where everything, and I mean everything, is turned on its head and rearranged like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle – not in the way of, say, Memento where you can hope to piece everything together if you watch the film again and pay attention. I could make a broad guess as to what really happened in Mulholland Drive, but in the end the movie operates on a non-logic of dreams and nightmares, with details and scenes which are probably not meant to be explained at all. What it all amounts to is an utterly unique experience from a filmmaker with his own distinct and twisted vision. While not strictly speaking a horror movie, it has a perfectly executed reveal scare that frightened the living daylights out of me, while my personal most unsettling moment is in its own way even more disturbing. While at the airport, Betty says farewell to an adorable old couple we assume she made friends with during the flight. They wish her all the luck in the world and it’s all very heart-warming. A minute later, the movie cuts to the couple sitting at the back of a taxi, with the frozen smiles on their faces that look more like horrible leers. This sudden subversion is random, unexplained and utterly creepy.

Naomi Watts’ career really took off with this movie and she’s brilliant here, playing what is initially almost a parody of a perky, plucky, bright-eyed wannabe actress. Harring on the other hand is, knowingly, the stereotypical sultry mystery woman. They’re both familiar types, for the movie to toy with. For viewers who like their movies to make sense and who get annoyed by unexplained details and subplots that go nowhere, Mulholland Drive would be a frustrating experience. If however you surrender to its weirdness and just go with the flow, it’s a trip.

The Girl on the Train

girlonthetrainI’m feeling a strong sense of déjà vu since I’ve reviewed Paula Hawkins’ best-selling thriller barely a week ago. I thought that the book was pretty average, but I was curious to see the film and especially what Emily Blunt, who is one of my recent favourite actresses, would do with the main role. As I had expected, she was the only truly remarkable thing in this decent but workmanlike adaptation. She’s always been a compelling presence and here she brings layers and nuance to the character of Rachel, a sad lonely alcoholic whose life fell apart after her husband left her. The plot of the movie sticks closely to the book, with Rachel getting involved into the disappearance of a young woman who, in a rather Hitchcockian fashion, she’d witnessed kissing a strange man from the window of her everyday commuter train. The only radical change is the transatlantic shift of the setting from London to New York, which neither adds nor detracts from the story. It’s hard to see why it was done at all, other than making the film more attractive to the US audience.

Whatever else I thought of the book, it was undeniably a compulsive page-turner. The film doesn’t manage the thrills and suspense as well, dragging in places and rendering some of the important revelations about its characters inert. The switch between the perspectives also doesn’t quite translate onscreen and makes the narrative feel fragmented at times. In a strange way my reactions to the book and movie were polar opposites – the book fizzled out for me when I realised where it was heading, whereas the film felt like it really gained its pulse in the third act once Rachel figures out what’s up, so it ended on a high and left me feeling probably more generous towards it than it deserved.

Throughout, Blunt really keeps this train on the tracks, digging deep into the pain and loss of her damaged, unlikable yet sympathetic character. It’s also a portrayal devoid of vanity as they did a great job making her look like a real screw-up. The supporting cast, which includes Luke Evans and Justin Theroux, does a solid job with their sketchy characters, though I’ve no idea why they got a Spanish-speaking (and looking) actor to play someone named Dr. Kamal Abdic. Overall, the movie could have been better at delivering consistent knife-edge tension its genre demands, but Emily Blunt’s performance made it worth watching.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

picnic_at__hanging_rock__1975It can be hard to make a story about an unexplained mystery feel dramatically satisfying, yet Peter Weir’s haunting, mesmerising, and utterly singular early film manages just that. It tells of the strange disappearance of three private schoolgirls and their teacher on a Valentine’s Day in 1900, during a day out at the Hanging Rock in Macedon Ranges, and the reverberating impact it has on the school and the local community.

I’ve been to the Hanging Rock myself on a day trip from Melbourne, and it’s a striking natural attraction, but here it becomes a hypnotic place infused with the eerie menace and dark beauty, and the setting of the film’s most memorable moments. I’ve never seen the Australian bush of Victoria look so enchanting onscreen – there are times when there’s almost a painterly quality to it. The images of the Victorian girls, so delicate in their long white dresses with frills and lace galore, make the landscape seem even more otherworldly and strange – they move in it as if they were ghosts. The day is uneventful until four of the girls decide to leave the picnic grounds and venture higher up among the rock formations. The last time Edith, the nerdy and somewhat whiny member of the group, sees her companions, they disappear into a crevice in an unnervingly silent, robotic manner, as if under a spell. It’s a spooky, surreal moment, which is kinda punctured for me with Edith’s piercing scream that comes off as rather cheesy… but nevermind, I can forgive one dated moment.

The rest of the film deals with the repercussions of the incident and the effect it has on the various people involved. There’s Mrs. Appleyard, the rather chilly yet tormented headmistress of the college (whose sleek and elaborate hairdo I couldn’t stop staring at) and a young Englishman and his Australian valet who glimpsed the girls as they made their way up the rock. The most tragic character is Sara, an intense rebellious girl with a doomed aura about her, who stays behind at the school during the picnic and who is clearly in love with Miranda, one of the missing girls described by her French teacher as a Boticelli angel for her ethereal luminous beauty. Though never made explicit, there’s an undercurrent of violence and sexuality to the story, with the small but sinister unexplained details like a lost corset. That the film tantalises the viewer with a haunting unsolved mystery is what ultimately gives the movie its power – if there was an explanation this would simply be a normal whodunit, although with a superb sense of atmosphere helped by the eerie panpipes. By the way, I couldn’t resist looking up the “solution” provided by the author of the original book in a previously unpublished chapter, and it was so unsatisfying I immediately dismissed it from my mind as Not Canon.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-trainThis was one of those mystery/thrillers where you go, hmm I think I can see where the story is going, but there are still plenty of pages left, so hopefully there’s some totally unexpected juicy twist in store… oh wait there isn’t. So then the remainder of the book is just waiting for the main character to connect all the dots and for the story to roll out, which is rather tedious. I don’t usually play Sherlock and try too hard to solve the crime or predict the plot of the books and movies – in most cases I prefer to sit back and go along with the story, and I rather like being surprised. Here though the red flags are so obvious I couldn’t help but guess the culprit long before the heroine does.

The story is told by multiple narrators, but our main hero and the titular girl on the train is Rachel, a young woman who well and truly hit the rock bottom after her husband dumped her for another woman. She’s unemployed with a raging drinking problem, and in order to fool her kind-hearted friend-slash-landlord she takes the same commuter train to London as if she still had her job. Every day, the train takes Rachel near her old house, now occupied by her ex-husband, his wife and their baby, and another house not too far away, with a young attractive couple Rachel becomes obsessed with – she even gives them imaginary names. They seem to have a perfect life together and she fantasises about their perfect amazing relationship that’s a complete opposite to her own failed marriage, until one day she sees something that totally shatters that image.

As a thriller, The Girl on the Train is for the most part a well-crafted, compulsive reading – I read it in a flash and even took it with me to work so I could finish it during lunch break. An unreliable narrator who suffers from blackouts is a fun device and the book puts it to good, suspenseful use. The problem is, there’s really not much else to the book apart from its central mystery – this is strictly a shallow, read-once-and-forget kind of novel. The writing is merely serviceable and the setting generic, without any sense of mood or atmosphere. Besides Rachel, the other two narrators are Anna, the woman Rachel’s husband left her for, and Megan, the half of the “perfect couple” who disappears in mysterious circumstances. While I never had a problem with unlikable protagonists, if you write unsympathetic characters you need to make them compelling in some way, but none of the characters here come off as distinct or interesting and their voices are pretty much interchangeable. I’m curious to see how the film adaptation with Emily Blunt turns out – this could be a rare case where a movie actually improves on the book.

The Bat by Jo Nesbo

the-bat-jo-nesboI wanted to take a short break from the Neapolitan Novels and read something less dense, so I read the first entry in the Norwegian crime series about Harry Hole, the hardboiled anti-heroic Oslo detective whose inner demons don’t stop him from having genius insights and solving cases by the end of the book. I first got introduced to the series while house-and-cat-sitting for a lady with an apparent huge interest in crime fiction, and eventually got through five or six Harry Hole books, mostly in non-chronological order which was confusing at times.

The series’ setting and the Scandinavian names, places and atmospherics were always part of the appeal for me, so I was rather deflated to find out that of all places, Nesbo decided to kick off his series in Sydney, Australia. Naturally living in Australia I’m immediately biased but uhhh… really? Did I really want to read about Sydney and sit through a checklist of obvious Australian references? And good lord they’re laid on thick: let’s see, Tasmanian devil, Mel Gibson, Don Bradman, Australia Day, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, crocs and sharks and poisonous jellyfish… why didn’t he throw in Neighbours and vegemite while he was at it? Some Australian characters Harry meets start off with the ocker Hiya mate!! and then proceed to talk like pretty much everyone else in any Harry Hole novel. About the only Australian-isms I enjoyed were the traditional Aboriginal legends which I didn’t know much about.

The story is about Harry travelling to Sydney in order to investigate the murder of a young Norwegian girl. He gets partnered with a local detective who is of Aboriginal descent, and realises that the crime could have been the work of a serial killer with a fixation on blondes. He also meets Birgitta, a young and beautiful Swedish woman who works at the same bar as the murdered girl and could turn out to be more than a holiday romance. Harry’s battle with alcohol, a big feature of the series, is already fully formed here and I got to learn more of his backstory explaining why he is such a messed-up soul.

In retrospect, the series definitely got stronger as they progressed, but as the debut The Bat is not bad. The plot doesn’t seem anything special at first, but becomes a real rollercoaster with some shocking twists and scenes that have a touch of theatrical. The identity of the killer was a surprise I didn’t see coming at all, though the final sequence was a bit over-the-top and I could see the way it was going to end from miles away (let’s just call it Chekhov’s shark). Nesbo’s writing style is straightforward and functional, but just like in the rest of his books, you get the occasional offbeat or macabre touches and neat psychological observations.