Sunday, January 4, 2009

THE ALPHABET KILLER (2008) d. Rob Schmidt

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Some of the scariest books and films mine the deep-seeded fear of having our faith in community pillars shattered. It is those we trust the most implicitly, like law enforcement, clergy, teachers and coaches who turn out to be some of the most compelling characters in horror films or thrillers when those same persons go wrong. What makes that kind of a character even more absorbing is when they are riddled with faults, you can see the cracks widening and yet you still cheer for them and hope for their ultimate success. A character we can relate to or at least feel strongly towards set amidst difficult circumstances can drive the plot of a film even if that movie has its own faults. THE ALPHABET KILLER has just such a gripping character and an actress who gives a dazzling performance, but sadly there are some serious story problems in the last one-third of this motion picture that keep it from being the great success it should have been.

Set in Rochester, NY in the very recent past and based on a “true story”, THE ALPHABET KILLER is the tale of passionate and driven police detective Megan Paige, played by Eliza Dushku. Detective Paige is tracking the killer of a pre-teen girl, who she is convinced will strike again from all the evidence she is able to amass. It is during the early pursuit that Megan’s obsession with finding the killer unseats her reason, destroying her career and nearly her life. Two years later and after much therapy and reconstruction of Megan’s daily routine, the killer resurfaces and begins to murder other young girls at an increasing rate. Against his better judgment, Capt. Kenneth Shine (Cary Elwes) puts Megan back on the case and once again she must battle inner demons in an effort to bring this monster to justice and stop him from the brutalization of other innocents before her self-control and sanity snap.

THE ALPHABET KILLER has a tried and true story idea of a “cop on the edge” that is effective and most of the story’s conflict and drama is created through a detailed focus on and careful attention to Megan’s psychological state. While the early stages of the plot are patient, the spotlight on Megan’s fixations and the strange but effective use of supernatural-seeming accents to scenes help to establish and strengthen the sense of her delicate state of mind and precarious struggles with mental illness. It is the exploration of Megan’s psychology instead of centering on action and/or shock tactics that allow THE ALPHABET KILLER to be a little smarter of a film for the first two-thirds of its runtime. After the introduction and early segments of the rising action, a subtle but steady increase in the momentum of the movie occurs, even as Megan’s character’s fight with potential mental dissolution and the drama played out with friend and foe alike help to create a rather absorbing and reflective tale of a good person, fighting the good fight and losing an inner battle with her frailties simply because she is doing the right thing.

All throughout THE ALPHABET KILLER there is the inestimable presence of lovely and talented Eliza Dushku, whose performance in this film is nothing short of amazing. As an attractive young woman with striking features, it would be easy to get lost in her looks and lose the authenticity of her character, but just the opposite occurs. Ms. Dushku’s portrayal of Meghan is so vibrant, intense and convincing that before long, I had totally forgotten I was observing an actress whom I enjoy and was feeling strongly for her character’s “no-win” situation and the likelihood she would not emerge unscathed from her trials. It was very often throughout THE ALPHABET KILLER that Ms. Dushku’s barely suppressed inner fire and perfectly modulated emotional roller coaster ride reminded me of the consistently moving performances of Steve Railsback, another talented and skilled professional whose force of will can propel an entire motion picture, and that is exactly what Eliza Dushku does. Her commanding and yet vulnerable persona, her expressive face and wonderfully convincing physical quirks leave a lasting and persuasive impact on every moment of THE ALPHABET KILLER. When coupled with Timothy Hutton’s steady performance of Richard Ledge and his stabilizing influence as an actor as well as the wonderfully crusty and thoroughly unsympathetic portrayal of crooked police Capt. Nathan Norcross by Michael Ironside, there are a lot of reasons to like THE ALPHABET KILLER. Unfortunately, there are quite a few reasons this film falls short of what it could have attained.

It doesn’t help that other performances in this movie were not as extraordinary as that of Eliza Dushku or as competent as Michael Ironside or Timothy Hutton. Cary Elwes has had a long career in the picture business, mostly fueled by the one great performance he gave in THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987). Most of the time, his acting is inconsistent at best, often times weak and it never helps to have him trying to play an American with his unconvincing accent and flat affect. His presence does not do this film any favors and despite Ms. Dushku’s best efforts, there is no chemistry between their two characters. Tom Malloy’s character of Steven Harper is little better and while a small degree of tension is created between the his character and Megan, it is almost totally erased when a brief but entirely unnecessary romantic element is foisted on the viewer. It is likely that this scene was scripted to try to show Megan’s continuing emotional instability but it has the opposite effect and felt foolishly forced and totally contrived. These weaknesses could have been small “bumps in the road” had it not been for a serious plot problem at the payoff.

Tom Malloy may be an improving young actor and he certainly has shown some growth in dealing with the topic of madness in his screenplays between THE ATTIC and THE ALPHABET KILLER. Having said that, you’ve got to deliver the goods by the end and your climax and denouement have to be up to the test of the earlier stages of the narrative. THE ALPHABET KILLER suffers from a horrendously implausible and miserably manufactured climactic set of scenes when Megan “learns” who the killer is. To make matters worse, what follows is an old hat and worn out “cat & mouse” game between Megan and the killer only salvaged by some unsettling final scenes that show Megan’s final descent into The Void. THE ALPHABET KILLER had me fairly well-hooked for the first two-thirds of the movie and Eliza Dushku’s brilliance left with a sizable amount of good will towards this project. In addition, Rob Schmidt’s directorial efforts were also praiseworthy. While not a “beautiful” motion picture, it was capably shot with some excellent attention paid to the small facial and body language that vividly displayed Megan’s steady decline and eventual dissolution. There even was some church imagery towards the end that was very attractively shot and well composed. Having said all that, the faults of the screenplay when it needed to be believable, disturbing, filled with impact and import just were not there and it was a damned shame. Hopefully Tom Malloy will show more progress as a writer and between now and the next film of his I watch, so that next time he will be able to pull together a slam-dunk ending.

THE ALPHABET KILLER has a small yet interesting set of bonus features. There are two audio commentary tracks, one with director Rob Schmidt and producer Isen Robbins, the other with actor/writer/producer Tom Malloy. Both are worthwhile. There is a 6 minute featurette called “A to Z: The Making of The Alphabet Killer” which is truly a “behind the scenes” look as we are treated to production shots contrasted with final scenes, alternate or unused footage and applied makeup effects, all the while set to music. Finally, there is a 3 minute alternate scene called “First Victim” that is worth a quick look. While this is not “The Seven Cities of Cibola” as extras go, it is intriguing to hear what cast & crew have to say on the commentaries.

I felt deeply torn when I pulled THE ALPHABET KILLER out of my DVD player, for I liked what it tried to do for the majority of the film and my respect and admiration for Eliza Dushku continues to grow. Certainly, performances like this one will go a long way to proving she is more than just a pretty face and a pleasing figure. However, for many years I have bemoaned the problems of the literary world brought on by its lack of quality line-editors and their inability to get novelists to effectively craft thoughtful endings. Obviously, similar problems are afflicting the motion picture industry as well, not that there haven’t been disappointments like this before and there will certainly be more to come. I have very high standards as a reviewer, for I am old, have seen a huge number of films, spend a lot of time analyzing, researching and trying to apply intellectual discipline to my understanding of cinema. It is likely that persons with lower standards and who are more forgiving may look past the weaknesses of this movie. If you can do that, and appreciate the great strengths of THE ALPHABET KILLER, then you will probably have a wonderful viewing experience. If you are a tough sell as I often am, you may not be willing to give this flick a chance. I would endure its failings just to see a superb acting effort that will probably not receive much notice, but it should. At least my written record will be a lasting testament to the best qualities of THE ALPHABET KILLER.

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