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Good Thriller Movies (2005-10): Crime & Punishment

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Hope Madden itcherThe second half of the decade saw filmmakers plumbing criminality, finding stories inside prison and out. The criminal element allows movies to explore the devastating consequences of poor decisions just as it allows opportunities to delve into character development. ~ Hope Madden

The Greats Are Here

Sidney Lumet, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Hardy, David Cronenberg – independent thrillers welcomed some of the most important names in cinema during this period. Hardy and Nicolas Winding Refn made their mark on modern film with their unabashedly unique vision of the British penal system, ‘Bronson’, while veterans like Lumet and Cronenberg found fresh material to revitalize their careers.

Crime has never paid quiet as well as it did for movies and movie-goers in the waning years of the millennium’s first decade.


Bloody Thriller Movie Recommendations

‘Bronson’ (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008)

You don’t want to be trapped inside with me sunshine. Inside, I’m somebody nobody wants to fuck with – do you understand? I am Charlie Bronson, I am Britain’s most violent prisoner…

You might assume a film based on true events, covering the life of Britain’s most violent inmate, would be grim, depressing, dismal even. No, ‘Bronson,’ a biopic of sorts of perpetual solitary inmate Michael Peterson –  who prefers his fighting name, Charles Bronson – is a wild, manic, and strikingly stylish ride.

Credit director Nicolas Winding Refn for choosing the untrod prison movie path of theatricality – blatant and often absurd. His use of color, clean lines, and exaggerated splashes wrap the film in a surreal vision where brutality coexists with drag because both serve the same high-camp, self-expressive, eye-catching purpose.

Credit also goes to him for working with then relatively-unknown Tom Hardy in the lead role. In his bruised and bloodied hands, Bronson can be terrifying and endearing inside the same moment. In this electrifying performance, Hardy finds a way to explore the character’s single minded violence, with only rare moments of true ugliness. The rest is just a guy beating his chest against his own limitations. But when this guy beats his chest, it’s usually with the bloodied stump of what was once a security guard or four.

Hardy, along with droll cast mate Matt King, is an alumnus of Guy Ritchie’s body of work, and in many ways Bronson feels like an evolution of Ritchie’s filmmaking. You’ve got a predominantly male cast, impenetrable accents, bare-chested brawls, gypsies, and oppressed English towns. Rather than feeling derivative, though, ‘Bronson’ feels like a revelation, taking these elements and infusing them with a cabaret style lunacy that makes the film irresistible and undeniably bizarre. This is Ritchie meets Kubrick, and the result is glorious.

‘Eastern Promises’ (David Cronenberg, 2007)

Sometimes birth and death go together. She came in with needle punches all over both arms. Probably a prostitute, at the age of fourteen…

With ‘Eastern Promises’, director David Cronenberg crafts a character-driven thriller that promises to absorb viewers from the opening credits. Set in the seedy side of London’s Eastern European immigrant population, the film braids with queasying dread a barbershop-throat-slashing 14-year-old’s death in childbirth, a loyal driver/bodyguard’s (Viggo Mortensen) ascension in mafia ranks, and a midwife’s (Naomi Watt’s) search for the orphan’s blood relation before the infant is irretrievably pulled into the world of foster care.

Script writer Steven Knight explored the desperate side of the London émigré community once before in his underseen Dirty PrettyThings. His fascination with the degradation and horror hidden just inches from an oblivious, law-abiding community propels his stories, and Cronenberg’s lifelong fixation with the underside of human nature assures his proper handling of the material.

There is a guarded longing that saturates the film, affecting every character but one – the terrifyingly controlled mafia czar Semyon (a flawless Armin Mueller-Stahl). 

With Cronenberg, blood is always both grotesque and redemptive. With this film, he subverts mafia genre clichés and exposes the human vulnerability that shadows every act of bravery or evil. He upends expectations and plumbs human misery without abandoning the mystery form. Long considered a director who works as much in the subconscious as the conscious, Cronenberg’s films are deeply upsetting and resonant.

‘Eastern Promises,’ like ‘Dead Ringers,’ ‘Naked Lunch,’ ‘The Fly’ and a dozen other Cronenberg gems, is a horrifyingly beautiful piece of cinema.

‘A Prophet’ (Jacques Audiard, 2009)

I’m going to ask a favor of you, not because you work for me, but because I trust you. Understand the difference?

‘A Prophet’ is a character study saturated with fascinating details to notice and riddles to solve, and we experience everything along with our fictional counterpart, new prison inmate Malik (a dazzling Tahar Rahim).

Filmmaker Jacques Audiard grabs both the prison movie and the mob film by their throats and tosses them aside, using none of the romantic notions of masculinity you’ve come to expect from either genre, instead creating something calmly superior.

Stephane Fontaine’s vérité photography underscores the picture’s almost detached observational style, while astonishing performances (Audiard veteran Neils Arestrup shines brightest) benefitting from gorgeously crafted writing keep you spellbound.

Audiard and his brilliant cast find humanity, vulnerability, and even almost charm as they illustrate the concept of survival amidst the debris of France’s penal system. It’s a miracle that should not be missed.

‘Hard Candy’ (David Slade, 2005)

I am every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed, killed…

‘Hard Candy’ is, for most of its running time, an expertly crafted, streamlined, intense film boasting not only exceptional direction, writing, and photography, but two startlingly good performances. 

Immediately unsettling, this nasty revenge fantasy tackles the issue of pedophilia, but to discuss the storyline in any detail is to give away too much. The true gravity of each performance, not to mention the full impact of the film’s brutal script, can only be appreciated if the twists actually surprise. The screenplay is exactly as ornate as necessary to deliver relentless discomfort. As soon as you think you can take the intensity no longer, the tone changes; unfortunately for your nerves, each shift in tenor creates its own anxiety.

The tale focuses, often in extreme close-up, on the relationship between two people: a 32-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl. The intensity of the story and its absolute dependence on performances from the leads make ‘Hard Candy’ an incredible product for Patrick Wilson and, in particular, Ellen Page.

Jo Willems’s invasively intimate cinematography aptly reflects each scene’s circumstances, changing tone quickly enough to predict each twist in the story. 

Truth be told, the film is nearly as torturous to the audience as the characters. Long before the film is over, you’ll feel abused and violated yourself. In broad daylight, with little fanfare, sparse back story, no effects, no blood, no swelling strings, a tiny cast and minimal budget, ‘Hard Candy’ will leave you spent, and perhaps nauseous.

‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ (Sidney Lumet, 2007)

How are we gonna fix it so your shit doesn’t fall on my shoes?

For his last film, the great Sidney Lumet truly returned to form with this devastating look at crime and the family dynamic.

Kelly Masterson’s script, laden with the unspoken comfort and hidden bitterness of family dysfunction, camouflages its spare vision with a nonlinear timeline. The erratic sequence of events presents the tale as that of an unthinkable robbery gone horrifyingly wrong. The audience forever pieces together information, gleans an understanding of motives and personal weaknesses, and dreads the outcome of each inevitable complication. But the movie’s power is in its resonant, terrifically understated core conflict between a bitterly alienated eldest son and his disastrously tardy repentant father.

The peerless Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers another in a long line of selfless, powerful performances as Andy, the eldest son of a jeweler. Self-inflicted victim of not only a life above his means, but also a precariously false exterior image, Andy needs money. Endearingly scruffy loser younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) also needs money, although in a very different and less dangerous way. In a breathtaking display of “trust me, I’m your older brother, and quit being such a baby,” Andy convinces Hank to rob their parents’ suburban jewelry store.

The lighting and color, each home’s appointments, every detail in every frame is thoroughly considered and beautifully realized to evoke an idea or fill out a character. So much of this film is unmistakably Lumet that it would be a joy to watch whatever the outcome.


Fraternizing with Criminal Elements

Whether newcomers or veterans, filmmakers and performers alike found creative expression in society’s underbelly with the thrillers of this era. Whether the film burst genre expectations with irreverent style, like Refn’s ‘Bronson,’ or employed a more traditional approach while subverting expectations with slow reveal, provocative and compelling films emerged.

It was a period so rich in imaginative movie making that the greatest the form had to offer worked side by side with promising newcomers to surprise, disturb, and amaze us.

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