Friday, February 26, 2010

The Crazies

Breck Eisner now has two high-profile features under his belt, and both might make you pause before you raise your tap water. His underrated Sahara followed a ragtag group of vigilantes taking down an African warlord and a French businessman who'd teamed up to poison the Niger river with a lot of toxic waste (the generic kind, green and sludgy, leaking out of big tin cans). In remaking George A. Romero's The Crazies, Eisner brings the toxins to the sleepy hamlet of Ogden Marsh, IA, in the form of a downed military plane that accidentally lets a biological weapon into the reservoir.

The stuff was engineered, says one government official in a bulletproof vest, "to destabilize a population."

And that it does, right away, as the first contaminated "crazy" wanders onto the high school baseball field on opening day with a shotgun only to get plugged in the head by the Sheriff. As a banner slung over Main Street announces, Ogden Marsh is to baseball as Dillon is to football on Friday Night Lights. Everyone in town is present to witness the violent death, including the star pitcher who will, sadly, never get his chance to make it to state.

But before too many people can register their scorn at Sheriff Dutton's itchy trigger finger (he does get smacked across the face by patient zero's wife), more bodies start piling up and a lot of soldiers run in for a town-wide reenactment of Quarantine.

Comparison's to Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead are apt. A premium is placed on forward momentum at the expense of a lot of exposition. This can be a difficult trick to pull off. If you think about it too much, the entire film is one big plot hole. But at least I'm not thinking about this stuff during the movie for once. The thing really moves, and I'm putting Eisner into the category of studio journeymen from whom I'll be excited to see more.

Eisner is especially adept at keeping his players in character - however slim the characters may be - in the midst of the action. Since he's not going to slow things down or let them breathe, the character beats come within the set pieces and it works like a charm. Timothy Olyphant's charismatic Sheriff Dutton may be a lawman, but in the scope of this story he's more of an everyman, with a sidekick in his Deputy and a motivation in his pregnant wife, played by Radha Mitchell. When another character suggests that trying to save his wife might get him killed, he replies, "Tell you what. Don't ask me why I can't leave without my wife and I won't ask you why you can."

Since Pitch Black this kind of smart genre exercise has been Mitchell's bread and butter. She brings a determination and dignity to the proceedings, never a shrill damsel in distress. Together, Mitchell and Olyphant make for a unit I enjoy rooting for. A sublimely ridiculous centerpiece that traps our heroes in a car wash is so much more successful than it has any right to be; ditto a bit featuring a runaway bone saw.

However, the thing that fascinates me about The Crazies is that, according to this New York Times article, this is supposed to be subversive "socially progressive cinema". One production partner is Participant Media, a firm that prides itself on releasing exclusively product with some form of social mandate, be it studio narrative like The Crazies or documentaries like Food, Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth. While this strikes me as a particularly nifty concept for a movie studio, I think it's funny that this is supposed to pass as socially progressive cinema. I suppose that says more about our country than it does the film itself; do we really need the story of a small town ruined by freak accident and an unfeeling military arm to incite advocacy for a federal chemical-security act?

On the other hand, Eisner thankfully knows his place as the director of a genre piece. If the intention of the moneylenders is to advance political policy, they were smart to hire a guy that would turn in a movie that's scary on its own terms rather than theirs. It's easy to imagine this plan turning out a self-important proselytizer. The Crazies fails as propaganda, and that's a good thing.

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