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June 2010

The Cry Of The Owl

cast: Paddy Considine, Julia Stiles, Krista Bridges, James Gilbert, and Gordon Rand

director: Jamie Thraves

95 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
review by Paul Higson

The Cry Of The Owl

T'was once the case that a film director came of note and, feeding his family or habits, he shot those flicks out like cannonballs, making enough little impacts for the filmgoers to latch on to his name. He might have come up through the ranks, been an ambitious and impatient student or a determined fan, but the biggest mystery was if the director of one notable film then failed to stump up that second movie. There once were few examples of a Herk Harvey (Carnival Of Souls, 1962) with a single movie credit, whereas the failure of others was more explicable as they were late sitters in the directorial seat or were better known in another film-land capacity, like the actor Charles Laughton who granted us The Night Of The Hunter (1955).

In the UK, directors simply did not seem to leave one great example and vanish though, retrospectively, we can see that there were outsiders who left curios in their wake and only the odd film or two to regard them by. Antony Balch left us two absurd movies which continue to collect fans, and Fred Burnley missed the boat with only one oddball feature of note in Neither The Sea Nor The Sand (1972) before, but both these directors met premature demises and picked up the role as British cinema funding was on the wane. Irrespective of early deaths there have here been no comparative Michael Wadleigh or Terence Malick. That is, until recently, one might observe.

Digital technology has had little impact on the reduction of costs enabling directors to turn out a quick succession of films of modicum interest. Prolific then was Edward L. Cahn, who made 11 films in one year back in 1960, while prolific now is Michael Winterbottom or Steven Soderbergh who make a similar number in ten years. For most directors the gaps between completing each film have become more distant. Movies go into development hell or there is a replication of the ten year period that it took to get the first film off the ground while scrabbling around in the dirt for a budget again.

Films rarely secure long term attention and there is less anticipation for major movies in production. A large number of films go into release weekly and there is little cult standing for any title as viewers are hastily shown to their seats for the next film. Ironically, this is at a time when Malick has awoken and his filmography is expanding. Do we have a Malick amongst the British upstarts, someone who has had us waiting ten years for that next potential masterpiece? Possibly... and no, heaven help us, I am not talking about Justine Kerrigan.

Many favourable noises were raised around one Jamie Thraves with the release of his debut film The Lowdown but his absence has not led to a chattering of voices in the crowd beseeching 'where is this genius and his second feature film'. But then did that really happen for Malick and Wadleigh too until Days Of Heaven and Wolfen came to act as confirmation that they were directors of more than a little aspect (even if it is only the horror fans who respect Wolfen). Thraves returns nearly a decade after The Lowdown with that different second film and had it arrived in the 1970s they might have been chucking statuettes at it. Sadly, it is a masterpiece, but one which might slip by unnoticed for yet another ten years as it bypasses a theatrical circulation for a brutally negligent straight to DVD release.

The Cry Of The Owl certainly has the credits going for it, adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel and with critics' favourite Paddy Considine in the lead role. I have seen the film previously referred to as a UK film but this is an Ontario shoot and a Canadian-German co-production (Myriad Pictures, Sienna Films, and Studio Hamburg International) with some BBC investment. Considine provides the only temporary problem here in that his accent sounds a little too affected, that is until the point at which a decision can be met that he actually sounds like Bruce Dern, so it cannot be that inaccurate or pronounced an accent. The casting is, in fact, immaculate.

The slow burn of this thriller is reminiscent of European filmmaking, particular those French movies that you are uncertain are going to kick in but work their magic as they come to a close, and in a way that resonates backwards throughout the preceding tale. The lucid camerawork of Luc Montpellier, relaxed editing of David Charap and the minimalist sub-Hermanesque score of Jeff Danna are essential to the soft forward roll of the film through its machinations and misunderstandings contributing to the worming of the wrong idea into the viewer, relaxing them into the deceptions.

Populated by Higsmith's usual menagerie of damaged people, the key players are an aeronautics designer Robert Forrester (Considine) who is recovering from a nervous breakdown and is met as the divorce papers are signed, his attractive divorcee Nikki (Caroline Dhavernas) who revels in her ex's torment, Jenny Thieroff (Julia Stiles) a girl with a history of depression and the really 'nice guy' Greg Wyncoop (James Gilbert) who is anything but nice and is dating Jenny as the film opens.

Thraves does not stop working at his lead players though and even the smallest role appears to be supported by a largely invisible backstory. Forrester's work friend Jack (Gordon Rand), for example, makes two quips on a homosexual theme as if testing the water for a positive response, a preoccupation beyond the routine family life. The failure of getting a response to those quips followed by the later threat to Forrester's employment however will eventually even override their friendship. Jenny's friend Susie (Jennifer Kydd) is brutally quick to read, her interest in her friends relationship status less about what she believes best for Jenny and more in consideration for what she perceives to be true and for the appearance of their inner circle. People are pretty much surprisingly upfront and that includes the landlord, amenable and pleasant until the point of his tenant's unsavoury notoriety and asking him to leave. "Have you got someone else interested?" ... "No, I just want you out!"

Forrester can be said to have brought many of his troubles down on his own head. He is not the greatest maker of friends and his escape from the city to a small town and a good job but one with a smaller firm may be an alternative but not the perfect one. His late evening peeping tom act on Jenny, who has also escaped to a smaller place, from the town into an abode in the woods, is clearly improper behaviour. She catches him in the act and he does what he feels will give her security of mind about his intentions by blurting his name and place of work to her and promising never to do something as foolish as this again. He is given the opportunity to explain himself further, and explains that he did not want to involve himself in her world but was merely content to observe what he saw as the perfection of her world. It is an ideal and from it he hopes to discover his own ideal but it would not include her. Instead the damaged girl attaches an affinity to him.

Jenny splits from Greg who is infuriated and the tables are turned on Forrester as he becomes the one virtually stalked by Jenny. Greg cuts Forrester off at a bridge one night and launches into an attack which sees Forrester land a lucky punch and knock him into the water. He rescues him and drags him away from the water's edge and hears him spluttering back into recovery before making a quick departure. He tells Jenny that night when she calls. The next day Greg has vanished presumed drowned and the police believe Forrester is the murderer but, until a body emerges, all they can do is pursue their only line of investigation. The obvious solution to the disappearance may not be so but I am skirting the main details and curtailing any more reveal as The Cry Of The Owl is worth discovering by all to themselves.

Being Highsmith, this is a tricky concoction, which seesaws between the mental instability of each of its occupant characters as some prove to be more dangerous than they first appear, not as threatening as they first may seem or more dangerous to themselves than they are to others. The discomfort operates on different levels. Firstly, it is in the inappropriate and misbegotten comments and off-colour humour of Forrester himself as he is introduced to important clients or excuses the company of a blind date or wrong reads his landlord.

Greg's father (Nicholas Campbell) is the only blood relative in a prominent role in the entire film and the family traits are cogent and real. Father and son are both quick to anger and both sucker punch Forrester immediately after delivering a line that they are not out for violence. It is a shock to see Campbell here at this age when most might recall him as him as a younger man, in particular, in the films of David Cronenberg, where he achieved his greatest notoriety as the Castle Rock killer in The Dead Zone (1983).

Stiles, hitherto bland in Save The Last Dance, The Omen remake and the Bourne trilogy, is away with the fairies here and paints a pitiable figure that you might want to look after at the same time you might want to look out for and avoid. It is a measured performance in a detailed film. Dhavernas is a scene stealer as she delivers her cruel putdowns. She inconveniences Forrester with telephone calls in the middle of the morning and an unnecessary trip to the lock-up for a 'lost' passport which we don't see her pull from her pocket but doubt came from the top of the cardboard box. When the divorce papers are signed she remarks: "I can't believe that I'm single again, can you?" then taunting him further with "Do you want to go on a date with me?"

Thraves has the camera on Forrester for 90 percent of the film putting us firmly in his camp but switching perceptions several times keeping the viewer in real doubt as to who is responsible for what. There may even have been a reluctance in the director to leave his side at all but it makes those few moments when Forrester is absent important and necessary as we see an action played out that he is not around to prevent and then, secondly, the villains are revealed providing us with the opportunity once again to shift our perception and reconnect with the story from a new angle.

The subdued approach by the filmmakers creates an ambiance which elides misconceptions and the screws tighten ever so slowly making Forrester's situation increasingly claustrophobic and deadly. The film takes place either in the brightest day or the blackest night, the action taking place in corners and grottos of light. I have seen the film twice and the final action in the film is a small one, with all the bodies already on the floor, but it will have you screaming desist at the screen. One of the films of the year... See it.

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