Monday, June 21, 2010

On DVD: "The Crazies (2010):

The first five minutes of Breck Eisner's The Crazies paint an almost comically detailed and earnest, Norman Rockwell-inspired vision of small-town America. The setting is Ogden Marsh, Iowa; the sun is shining, the grass is green, and folks are heading out to a baseball game. It's such a literal illustration of our traditional Americana iconography that you half expect a shot of someone's mom pulling an apple pie out of the oven.

Of course, all this follows a brief prologue that indicates the entire town will be on fire two days later, so it's no big surprise that this Wal-Mar commercial has been set up only to be blown wide open. And it is, quickly; in the midst of the high school ballgame, resident Rory Hamill strolls onto the field with a nosebleed and a shotgun. Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) approaches him, calmly; Rory's got a bit of a drinking problem. Dutton tries to get him to put the gun down, but when Rory raises it, the sheriff instinctively, immediately shoots him in the head, as the whole town looks on.

It's a whopper of an opening, taut and efficient--a description that could be applied to Eisner's well-crafted remake of George A. Romero's 1973 picture. Eisner seems to have adopted the approach Zack Snyder employed for his 2004 remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead (hell, they both open with cuts from Johnny Cash's The Man Comes Around album)--which is to say, keep it tight and fast and slick. For the most part, it works. Scott Kosar and Ray Wright's screenplay telescopes the action a bit, keeping the government officials and soldiers as mostly faceless villains and focusing on Sheriff Dutton, his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), the town doctor.

She's the one who sees the next of the title characters, a local farmer whose wife is worried that "he's... not right." She has no idea; the farmer ends up chasing his wife and child into a closet with a knife, and then burns their farmhouse down. Sheriff Dutton eventually pinpoints the cause of the trouble--a recent plane crash appears to have somehow infected the drinking water, and folks are just plain losing their minds. He's barely put all this together when the military descends upon the town to quarantine the residents, sick and well alike. Dutton, Judy, and Russell manage to escape the quarantine, along with Judy's nurse (Danielle Panabaker); they spend the rest of the picture trying to escape their now-desolate town.

The matter-of-fact approach is chillingly effective--yes, we get an idyllic, smoothed-out, Hollywood view of small-town life, but the contrast once The Crazies take over (both the infected residents and the government personnel) is compelling nonetheless. The picture unfolds with a nightmarish logic, plunging from one jarring set piece to the next; that pitchfork scene (with its wisely-chosen poster imagery) is a scorcher, the standoff in the nursery is simply hair-raising, and the car wash sequence is surprisingly frightening.

Olyphant's performance strikes just about the right note; he overplays an early scene with Rory's widow, but mostly brings the right degree of square-jawed professionalism to the role, grabbing his moments on the fly, when he can. As Clank, Joe Anderson has a relaxed believability, and brings that quality out of Olyphant--they're both better when they're on screen together. Mitchell's role is a bit more thankless, but she imbues it with the right amount of steely determination.

Though his placement in the director's chair reeks of nepotism (he's the son of Hollywood power player Michael), director Breck Eisner is a legitimately talented craftsman, albeit one with some tempo issues to work through. The relentless pace doesn't give the picture much room to breathe, and it packs itself so tightly that it seems unsustainable. By around the hour mark, we're not sure where it's got left to go; consequently, it loses some of its punch by the time it reaches the fairly generic climax (at least the part of it at the truck stop). But it certainly delivers what its audience is looking for, and does so with an intelligence and skill uncommon in the "horror remake" subgenre--and the ballsy ending packs a real punch.

At their best, Romero's pictures called to mind the filmmakers that Scorsese referred to as "director/smugglers," who would insert controversial ideas and commentary into their conventional genre pictures. Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies functioned, at least at a subconscious level, as criticism of their time--and of the two major friction points (civil rights and the Vietnam war) within that culture. There doesn't appear to be much of that in Eisner's remake--at least on purpose, based upon the timing of the writing and production (it was shot in spring of 2009). Some in the bonus features mention the parallel to last year's swine flu panic, but there is something strangely timely right now about its unsettling paranoiac vision, which seems to oddly echo some of the fringe right rhetoric in the air these days--military ordered to execute Americans, or throw them into quarantine camps ("FEMA camps")? Black helicopters hunting down the citizenry? For most of the audience, The Crazies might just seem to be a smoothly executed, nerve-jangling thriller. For someone like Alex Jones, it probably plays like a documentary.

"The Crazies" debuts on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday, June 29th. For A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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