Running Scared (2006)
This has to be one of the best thrillers to come out in a while - it's certainly the best I've seen in recent memory. It doesn't sound like much on paper, but it's definitely a dark and original cinematic experience.
The film focuses primarily on two central characters during a time period of about half a day (by my reckoning), and the film's title is appropriate for both of them. One is Joey (Paul Walker), a guy who works as hired muscle for a mafia / drug dealer gang. The other is Oleg (Cameron Bright), a young boy of Russian descent who lives next door to Joey's house and is best friends with his son Nicky (Alex Neuberger). When a drug deal goes bad and some corrupt cops get killed, Joey is entrusted to dispose of his boss Tommy's (Johnny Messner) somewhat distinctive gun. He doesn't, and instead hides it away in his home as 'insurance'. Unfortunately for Joey, Oleg discovers the gun and uses it to shoot his abusive father-in-law Anzor (Karel Roden) before running away. Anzor is the nephew of the boss of a Russian gang who demands an explanation as to how the boy got the gun. The Russian gang happens to be doing business with Joey's gang, who (in order to appease their business partners) promise to find out what happened and begin searching for Oleg. A panic stricken Joey, realizing that his employer will kill him if he learns that the gun wasn't disposed of properly, is forced to track down Oleg and stay one step ahead of the others who are looking for him. To add to Joey's woes, a crooked cop (Chazz Palminteri) figures out that the gun used by Oleg was the same one used in the shootout earlier in the day that caused the deaths of some of his corrupt buddies.
And that's just scratching the surface, as the plot is actually quite dense and features loads of twists and turns and characters popping in and out. I don't want to go into any more detail, because I've already written too much and wouldn't want to spoil any more - it's best to just see the film. The script by Wayne Kramer (who also directed) is excellent and effectively lays out the plot and creates some memorable characters and snazzy dialogue. I'm impressed by how Kramer squeezed in so many characters and events into two hours without making it confusing and without reducing any character to the role of a perfunctory cipher. Case in point - I haven't even mentioned Joey's wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga), and she has a prominent role in the film! Thematically the film deals with notions of honour and decency - no one in this story is a paragon of virtue, and many are ostensibly 'bad', but decency does exist amonsgt them, while people who might appear decent are the most depraved and despicable of all. The Oleg storyline is apparently based on the Grimms' fairy tales, and I can see the influence, especially in one subplot involving a paedophile couple which while conceptually taxing my suspension of disbelief was quite well executed. My only major complaint is the twist near the end, which just didn't sit too well with me. It seemed to come out of nowhere (although it was set up in at least one scene), and the actual ending itself while satisfying felt a bit safe and conventional.
The performances are very good for the most part, and the most important roles are perfectly cast. Paul Walker is great as Joey - it's hard to believe this is the same guy from The Fast and the Furious! He's completely convincing as a gritty but desperate tough guy, and as a husband and father (the type of husband and father a man like him would be, at any rate). Vera Farmiga is also excellent as Teresa, a character that goes from being simply a concerned housewife into someone who is forced to take drastic action. The seemingly ubiquitous Cameron Bright is suitably traumatized after a life of constant beatings - he has the glazed and haunted look in his eyes. Although it has to be said that he's like that in everything (and more than a little creepy, as in Birth), it's fitting for this role. Karel Roden is bizarrly memorable as the John Wayne loving, wife beating Anzor. Johnny Messner and Chazz Palminteri unfortunately make less of an impression in their respective roles. The rest of the supporting cast do good work, and there's too many to name them all individually in this already excessively long blog post.
The real star of the film is Wayne Kramer, whose direction is excellent. Not only does he juggle a large cast with aplomb, he infuses the film with a distinctive and gritty visual style. It's dark and grimey and bloody violent. There's fancy camerawork that isn't just style for the sake of it but is actually a part of the storytelling. There's a real sense of urgency and fear that permeates the film, and there are plenty of tense moments, including a sequence involving hockey pucks that should make just about anyone squirm. While being limited in quantity, the action is also stellar; in particular, there's a chaotic and frenzied shootout during the opening sequence that sets the scene and lets you know this is something a little bit different and possibly something special.
Thinking back on it, there's a lot going on in this film that I didn't immediately pick up on. I was too busy enjoying watching it. I suspect it'll make for good repeat viewing. It may not be to everyone's taste - it's violent and has a healthy 'swear words per minute' rating - but it's hard to argue against how well made it is. Definitely worth seeing.