The thriller is a genre whose films are so often done so poorly, it can be a real shock when we’re reminded just how effective they can be when they’re done well. Here are three of the best from Sundance 2012:
Continuing the recent trend of hard-hitting and well-made imports from Australia, Wish You Were Here chronicles the aftermath of a Cambodian vacation gone wrong (and, in flashback, the vacation itself as well). It’s well-plotted and tense, and the out-of-sequence structure that trips up so many filmmakers is actually used to great effect here. Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Animal Kingdom) delivers a tightly-wound, powerful performance as a man desperately trying to hold things together,and to hold things inside. By the time all the secrets have been revealed, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve figured them out or not; the ride has been worth it. It may be a less weighty experience than some other Sundance films, but it’s an enjoyable one nonetheless.
Sure to be the most polarizing film of the festival. First of all, it’s a serious philosophical exploration of faith and doubt disguised as a supernatural thriller. Second, the last ten minutes or so are left intentionally vague and open to interpretation. Third, people love to find a Sundance film with big stars that they can feel good hating. It’s certainly not a film for everyone, but I loved it. The powerhouse cast (Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Elizabeth Olsen, Cillian Murphy, Joely Richardson) each deliver, though I do wish the wonderful Olsen had been given more to do; she spends much of the film written into “concerned girlfriend” mode. The performance of the film and perhaps the festival, though, topping even DeNiro, is Murphy. Producer Cindy Cowan told me she thinks he has an Oscar in him one day, and though it’s unlikely to come from a film of this genre, the performance is definitely strong enough to be mentioned.
James Marsh is one of that rare breed of directors that excels at both documentary and narrative film, but most American audiences probably know him primarily for his docs (especially Project Nim and Man on Wire, two of the best of the last decade). Shadow Dancer could change all that. Although it’s set in Ireland during one of the many periods known as “the troubles,” it’s not a political film, at least not directly. It’s more of a personal dilemma film in the skin of a thriller. Clive Owen, in addition to presumably providing some box-office appeal on the film’s eventual release, is also very good here — silent, haunted, with searching eyes. A blonde (!) Gillian Anderson slips into the role of a fellow British police detective as if she was born to play it. And Andrea Riseborough continues her streak of very strong performances in high-profile art films (Made In Dagenham, Never Let Me Go, Happy-Go-Lucky). An intelligently crafted crowd-pleaser, Shadow Dancer just might end up being Marsh’s narrative breakthrough.