In the era of identity theft, unprecedented threats to privacy, and the juggling of multiple selves through the many avenues of communication offered by social media, stories of secret identities resonate. Sometimes, we long to be invisible. AMC’s The Americans, about deep-cover Soviet operatives living in ‘80s-era Washington, D.C., to take one example, evokes nostalgia for the days when hiding was so much easier.
Like the Americans, whose titular couple have two children, Erased combines a family drama with an undercover thriller: a disavowed CIA spook goes on the lam with his teenaged daughter, in search of the mercenaries out to kill them both.
Ben Logan (Aaron Eckhart) works for multi-national Halgate (a not-so-subtle stand-in for Halliburton) in a Brussels laboratory, where he tests electronic storage and security devices for weaknesses. His daughter Amy (Liana Liberato) has just joined him after the death of her mother (Ben’s ex). The day after Ben has alerted his boss to some inconsistencies with the patents associated with the equipment he’s assessing, he finds his workplace empty, and all traces of his job with Halgate eradicated, including his bank account.
It dawns on Ben that he and his team have been targeted by Halgate and his former CIA handler. With Amy in tow, he sets about learning the details of the set-up and settling the score. Along the way we, and Amy, learn exactly what Ben did in his old job.
All thrillers go through an introductory stage that establishes a baseline of plausibility for the audience to hang onto (like a slippery root on the edge of a cliff) when the film careens into the incredible. Early in Erased, we see Ben at his job, and watch father and daughter struggling to get to know each other. Erased succeeds too well in this initial segment. Ben’s job is way more interesting than the generic cloak and dagger escapades that comprise the bulk of the film, and serves as an apt metaphor for the relationship of a protective father and his rebellious teenaged daughter testing each other for vulnerabilities.
Eckhart and Liberato’s chemistry is so good, I found myself wishing director Philipp Stölzl would jettison the whole action plot in favor of following the pair as they worked to establish a trusting relationship. The film even seems to acknowledge this unspoken wish, if only for a moment. Despite the disorientation and anxiety brought on by the deletion of Ben’s identity, his predicament seems like the ultimate liberation. He and Amy could go anywhere and start over. Alas, Ben’s erasure isn’t complete (the days of tape drives, phone taps, and reliance on pre-DNA evidence on display in The Americans are long gone). All the wrong people know exactly who and where he is.
Just as its title recalls a blackboard, so Erased includes an educational dimension. Talk about experiential learning! The Logans’ adventures offer plenty of teachable moments, and Amy turns out to be a quick study. Over the course of the film, this junior agent Starling, despite being alarmed by her father’s wet-work acumen, learns how to dress wounds, blend into a crowd to avoid detection, steal a car, and spit at an adversary in disgust when being taken into custody by henchmen.
Erased accumulates quite a body count of operatives and bystanders on its way to resolution. Like Taken and a host of other thrillers involving American parents in the Old World, the film suggests that—whatever the currency exchange rate—a mountain of international corpses is a fair price to pay for the reunification of one American family.
Or read it another way as a cry for help from an empire in decline. Divorce, outsourcing, the victory of the military-industrial complex over democratic governance: it’s all on display here. Did I mention health care? The enviously low staff-to-patient ratio on display in the hospital where Ben and Amy seek refuge (at least before the bullets start flying) may be the most striking feature of the film.
The only DVD extra is a five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.
// Short Ends and Leader
"Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a darkly funny and philosophical cyberpunk locked-room thriller that tangles with the greatest sci-fi puzzle: What does it mean to be human?READ the article