Safe House (2012)
This is me writing this straight after getting home from the theatre. I saw this a few weeks after release just because of not getting my time in order. Regardless, what I have to say about Safe House is that it is amazing on many different levels. There are some cinematography shortcomings, but where it counts, this is a movie that delivers on more than just action. Safe House is one of the best thrillers I have seen in many, many long years, and this is a genre I am very passionate about.
Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent who has been stuck as a “housekeeper” for their safe house in Capetown, South Africa for the past twelve months. Believing he has the potential to become a full fledged case officer, Weston becomes frustrated by the complacency of his career. Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal, obtains a digital file from an MI6 contact which contains incriminating evidence of several worldwide intelligence agencies. However, he is targeted by a team of mercenaries, and the MI6 agent is killed in the process. Seeing no alternative, Frost evades them by walking into an American consulate and turns himself over to the authorities. This lands Frost in Matt Weston’s safe house where a harsh interrogation by a special ops team begins, but is cut short when the mercenaries attack the safe house. Weston is forced to escape, taking Frost captive to keep him safe until brought back into CIA hands. However, Tobin Frost is a master manipulator, and he begins to get into the head of the young operative who finds his morality tested and idealism shaken. Circumstances soon push Matt Weston into going against orders and to figure out who he can trust before he and the world’s most skillful assassin are both eliminated.
Simply said, this is a very powerful, effective film fronted by two incredible actors. This film entirely backs up my statements from my Green Lantern review of the wide range and quality of Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability. Playing opposite Denzel Washington inevitably requires an actor who can carry a lot of weight, and in my mind, Reynolds never slacks off. Matt Weston starts off the film as a very frustrated, yet untested agent. He has the ambition to move up in the ranks, but hasn’t the experience to temper his confidence. The film forces him into a dangerous journey that forges him into a sharp minded, confident, and capable man. All the while, Reynolds holds up his end of the film with amazing talent. This is him upping his game and allowing himself to shine through next to Denzel. That is not an easy feat to accomplish, and the screenplay throws a lot at the character to make it an achievement to be hard earned. Reynolds’ performance crafts a great and compelling arc for Matt to work through. The character has many highly relatable aspects, and is a very human character. He has a loving girlfriend named Ana, portrayed by Nora Arnezeder, who he wants to devote so much of himself to, but he cannot due to the secretive necessity of his job. And being stuck on this assignment will soon force him to be parted from her as she takes a job opportunity in Paris. All of these lies and frustrations ultimately create a conflict for Matt as the story forces him into a more perilous position, but never does he let go of his emotional core.
Now, Washington and Reynolds work off each other fantastically creating an evolving character dynamic which is constantly compelling and intriguing. Throughout the film, Frost is imparting his experience and cunning skill set upon Matt, and this is the basis for their relationship. At times, it’s survival based, but ultimately, it’s about trust. As if it needed to be said, Denzel is stunning as Tobin Frost. He is one of the finest, most talented actors around. While Denzel usually has roles that allow his natural charm and charisma to work to his advantage, here, he curtails it entirely. Frost is a far more psychologically driven character who is dark, dangerous, and ruthless. Morality doesn’t factor into anything, it’s about strategy and survival. However, he connects with Weston because Frost sees what he once was and wants to help this young man not become the same thing he became. He’s never straight forward in saying that. Instead, he works as an observer of Weston’s life, and bestows his experiences upon him. This ultimately affects Matt’s decisions and actions. Again, it tempers him, and allows him to survive to make better choices than Frost made. Denzel is also quite unsettling in how he inhabits the merciless nature of Frost’s violence. He doesn’t need to shoot a prone man five times, but he does out of cold rage or a vindictive point. He shows his enemies how more deliberately violent he is by doing such things. For him, it is only shoot to kill. Denzel conjures up a brilliant performance of an intelligent, analytical character who brings immense gravitas to the story. The emotion he shows is subtle and veiled in Frost’s inquisitive and foreboding nature.
The strength of the film is maintained by a solid and impressive supporting cast. Everyone nails the dramatic weight and tone of the film, and their characters feel fleshed out and realistic. Brendan Gleeson is the most prominent as Weston’s direct superior, David Barlow. He plays the subtle turns of the character very nice, and holds an audience’s attention quite well. The film plays some misdirection here and there, but these moments only continue to fuel Weston’s growing weariness. Sam Shepard also appears as CIA Director Harland Whitford creating an all around interesting performance that motivates many of the thematic elements through to the end. An appearance by the always solid and enjoyable Ruben Blades as a document forger adds an extra dimension to Frost. Even if he happens to be a criminal, it shows that Tobin does have people he trusts and can call a “friend.”
What few scenes we do get of Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau are great. From tender and affectionate to quietly concerned to distraught and upset, she inhabits all emotional aspects of Matt’s beloved superbly. While she is never in peril or is a direct motivation for Matt to do what he does, she is always in the back of his mind. He has something worthwhile in his life that he does not want to lose, but there are bigger ramifications at hand which he cannot turn a blind eye to. If for nothing else, he wants her kept safe, and makes some difficult choices because of that desire.
This truly is a thriller on the level of Michael Mann. Even a few moments in the musical score felt evocative of Collateral here for me. Composer Ramin Djawadi has done some work I am familiar with including Iron Man, the Hugh Jackman-Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and the current CBS crime thriller series Person of Interest – and so, I can truly see why he has tapped for this film. The score is entirely awesome bringing out some stellar emotional resonance in key moments, and serving the intense action sequences excellently. This is another powerhouse element that raises the film up to another level.
Now, I have good and bad things to say about the cinematography. First off, STOP IT!!! Stop with the blasted shaky cam! Break out a tripod, a steadicam, or dolly track for one scene! Safe House was shot by Oliver Wood, who also photographed the first three Jason Bourne films. Now, while Paul Greengrass has nothing to do with this movie, you would think otherwise in how it was shot. Still, it is a little better than Greengrass’ Bourne films as the framing can be wider at times, and the lighting is far superior. You can actually maintain a sense of geography in most action sequences, especially the car chases because the action is given a wider composition. Still, this trend has worn on me so much over the years, I can only plead filmmakers to stop at this point. There is one scene between Matt and Ana where it’s supposed to be a quiet emotional scene, but the camera just keeps wobbling all over the place. From experience, shooting a simple dialogue scene with a handheld camera usually only results in a subtle instability, but here, it is so deliberately shaky like the camera operator was about to stagger and fall over. The good half of the cinematography is that it does add a necessary gritty, hardened reality to the film. There is nothing glossy about it, and that’s how it should be. The lighting reflects this with perfect execution using many color schemes to breathe some vibrancy into select scenes. There is moodiness and atmosphere, but that gritty texture is always present to maintain a consistent visual style.
And despite the shaky cam crap, the action sequences are massively effective. This truly has some hardcore action going for it by never pulling any punches. It’s full-on, straight ahead realism maintaining intense momentum and adrenalin. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are definitely impressive showing Denzel and Ryan handle themselves like dead-on professionals. They both deliver hard edged physicality which further drove my respect for both actors, especially Reynolds. It really is a pleasure seeing him in a role that showcases his wide range of abilities, and seeing him handle the physical demands of this film pleases me a great deal. I also enjoy that the action sequences aren’t there for self-indulgence, they push the plot and character arcs forward. Seeing Weston beat down on one of the gunman, interrogating him while Frost looks on from afar was an impactful scene. It starts to beg the question of just what path is Matt Weston starting down.
The screenplay by David Guggenheim is a masterful piece of work. Every character is written with such strength and depth that they must have jumped right off the page. The story itself is wonderfully crafted establishing Tobin Frost quickly as a dangerous and cunning man through not just actions but words. The tone of the scenes are built into how they are written through character interactions and situations. While everyone else is panicking in the safe house when it is hit, Frost sits there, handcuffed and calm as can be. He talks Matt through the situation, and tries to keep him calm and focused. This is a man in control, a man who can see the next step forward. He always sets up the situation where he has the leverage, where he dictates how it goes down. This is established right from the beginning of the film, and continues on throughout. The psychological aspects of the story are brilliant. Whether or not Matt Weston trusts what Tobin Frost says, he cannot ignore his words when circumstances turnaround on him. He becomes more and more aware of the truth closing in around him, and Matt must act in his own best interests as a direct result of what he learns from Frost. The screenplay continually weaves a finely textured fabric of truth and deception around Weston with only Frost as the key to unravel it all.
This is all amazingly executed by director Daniel Espinosa. You can be certain that his name is one I will take notice of from here on out. Again, me comparing this to the best of Michael Mann’s work is a huge piece of praise as Mann is my favorite filmmaker (excluding Miami Vice & Public Enemies). This truly has all the hallmarks of the finest this genre has to offer. Every emotion, every conflict, every action sequence, and every character is handled with immense care, detail, and weight. Nothing is cheated or unearned. Great respect is given to all aspects of this story to craft it into a deeply satisfying and rich film. I honestly can’t recall seeing another film as dramatically impactful an visceral as this one, theatrically, in a terribly long time.
For me, 2011 was not a great year at the theatre for me. There were some enjoyable flicks, but nothing remotely as riveting as Safe House came into my view. Whatever the rest of 2012 holds for me, I always enjoy starting out a new year of cinema with a strong film, and this is one of the most rock solid films around. With an incredible cast of talent in front of the camera coupled with an intelligently written screenplay populated by powerful characters, Safe House was an absolute pleasure for me to experience. I am glad I made the time to give it my attention. I highly and deeply recommend this film for anyone who is excited by a psychologically rich dramatic thriller with visceral action sequences.