Monday, March 1, 2010

Burning Yourself Down

by James Hansen

Given the recent events in Texas, Breck Eisner’s The Crazies initially seems full of restrained timeliness. Something is wrong in Ogden Marsh. The small-town has been filled with something causing several residents to act strangely. A man saunters onto a local baseball field during a game with a loaded shotgun. Another locks his wife and child in a closet before lighting his house on fire. Local law enforcement – notably the sheriff, David, and his deputy, Russell – scrambles for answers as the town begins to implode home by home. Ah yes, small town America is as crazy as ever. And what could be the cause? This would-be timeliness vanishes pretty quickly with a sloppy narrative and even messier director. Unfortunately, The Crazies follows the fate of the town and burns itself down entirely too quickly.

This premise, slightly reworked from George Romero’s 1973 film of the same name, fits the bill for standard horror fare, yet Eisner and his production team instill in the opening sequences a taught atmosphere creepily mimicking the quickly dissolving population. The first 20 minutes are a wonderful balance of hard and soft light, noise and stirring silence, and craft a dangerous aura that one can only hope is sustained throughout. But just as the narrative’s zombie-fied residents and baffled authority set up a strong base for the “small-town on the brink of nothingness” dilemma, Eisner and screenwriters Scott Kosar and Ray Wright pull the rug out from under their own first-act momentum by abandoning Ogden Marsh and heading for larger power struggles between the individual and the government, as well as internal debate, that only feels confused and half-hearted. After about an hour, it becomes impossible not to ask, “Where in the hell did the movie go?”

The Crazies shifts gears moving away from the town and into a government-run facility before our sheriff and deputy break out, wander around, go back to the government-run facility, and then walk around some more. Losing interest in the town, The Crazies tacks on story after story of David, Russell, and Co. trying to run away from...something...and defeat the...zombies?... government?... a disease?...their self worth? Trouble of it is, there is never a sense of what the characters are trying to do as they cycle around looking for “answers” amidst a narrative that never posed any questions. Instead, the characters just wander, as does the film, without the faintest purpose ultimately recalling shoddy Romero fare that has been placed in a broken blender and liquified with half-assed versions of The Road and Gerry.

Perhaps too indebted to Romero or not bold enough to move away from Romero’s obsession with trapping characters in buildings and having them escape with large vehicles (hard to know how much influence Romero had with an executive producer), The Crazies screenplay traps itself in a narratological no-man’s land. Of course, Romero, at his best, knows how to work through what he has created. The same cannot be said for Eisner and his team. After Ogden Marsh becomes totally incidental, maybe unintentionally, The Crazies pulls out a small bag of tricks to keep it moving (warning: secondary characters introduced an hour into a horror movie have no chance for survival) but it just becomes canned, flat, and crazzzy boring. After it gets lost, there is no finding its way back. In destroying its own ability to reflect on Ogden Marsh in a movie distinctly about small-town mania and destruction (you can really tell how misunderstood the material is with the inclusion of an abysmal coda) The Crazies locks itself in a closet and lights its house on fire. But if we know the house is empty, then why bother watching?



Nostalgia Kinky said...

You liked the film more than I did, and you didn't like it that much. I thought it was just terribly boring and really badly directed. Romero's original version is the work of a man fuelled by a creative fire and genuius who pulls out all the stops possible despite a tiny budget. This update has the budget but is otherwise creatively bankrupt. I kep't asking myself how they could make this material boring but boredom was the main thing I felt throughout it.
It's a real pity as both Olyphant and Mitchell are terrific actors but they just have nothing to work with here...dreadful film but nice piece James.

James Hansen said...

Jeremy- Yeah...just really boring. I actually haven't seen the Romero, which may have helped me buy into the beginning a little more, but it's just really tedious eventually. I almost lowered the grade a little more, but I liked a couple sections enough to not call it a total disaster. I saw your thoughts on Fbook and mostly agree, but I guess I'm just cutting it a little more slack. Pretty bad though. I'll check out the Romero soon. Glad you like the piece! :-)