Can't Beat the Physics
The military thought I was overcommitted. They didn’t understand my commitment. They understand it now.
—Carroll Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel)
Déjà Vu begins with a terrorist attack. It’s introduced via Tony Scott’s signature herky-jerky framing, an oversaturated image of vacationers piling onto a ferry, a combination of New Orleans locals and a flock of Navy sailors on leave. They rush forward to the boat, kids in arms and white uniforms gleaming, the voyage ahead a bright promise of family and at least a few hours of freedom from daily cares.
When the bomb goes off, the happy scene is rocked horribly, with smoke and flames and body parts shooting into the sky. The effect is dramatic, the threat duly established. Even as first responders arrive, grasping survivors, gathering them up in arms and swaddling them in blankets, the chaos—at once familiar and harrowing—begs questions. Where is the security system that’s supposed to keep such catastrophes from happening?
This is one set of questions posed by Déjà Vu, in recalling similar scenes (“Unlike Katrina,” says one authority, “This was not an act of nature”). The film also submits that such fear and turmoil that are always new, each time they emerge with such violence. Among the authorities summoned to sort out the crime scene is ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), who has particular expertise at reading details. He fills the frame with a reassuring presence, mostly because he’s Denzel, but also because he’s clearly seeing what others around him are missing. The camera cuts between his steadfast gaze and various objects—a body floating, a flaming bit of debris, a surveillance camera on a nearby bridge. Though, as one inspector observes, it is a “unique and complicated crime scene with most of the evidence under 100 feet of muddy water,” Doug digs right in.
Indeed, Doug’s acute interpretations of evidence—residues, fragments, and video images—draws the attention of FBI special agent Pryzwarra (an underused Val Kilmer), who recruits him for a special anti-terrorism team arrived to take charge of the investigation. (In a nifty bit, Doug is summoned mid-sniff, as he’s inspecting a site smeared with smelly bomb-making material.) Though Doug imagines he’s on top of his details, he soon learns there’s something else afoot, when he’s called to examine the body of a woman, Claire (Paula Patton).
The corpse—bloodied and burned and missing several fingers—shows signs of having been in the explosion. But when he finds other evidence that sets her time of death minutes before the bomb went off, Doug becomes captivated by her story. He gets a chance to dig into it when Pryzwarra’s team shows him their super-duper surveillance technology, which ostensibly culls imagery from multiple sources and allows them to follow Claire’s activities (including showering, which makes for the predictable sex-starved nerd jokes) during the four days before her murder. The imagery is speeded-up and hectic, just the sort of jiggedy aesthetic that characterizes Scott’s recent movies (Domino, Man on Fire). Hoping to spot the terrorist in this footage, the team enlists eagle-eyed Doug. Silly team. He sees more than they expect, and so they must confess: they’ve found a way to “warp the very fabric of space,” whatever that means.
This leap from contemporary coppish thriller into science fiction is initially jarring, but soon revealed as the thematic point. One of the researchers warns Doug that there are limits to said warping’s effectiveness. “You can’t beat the physics,” he says, which only sets up that Doug will beat the physics, or, in his words, “use more than physics.” The generic shift also leads to some crazy action scenes, with Doug wearing elaborate futuristic headgear that lets him see the past at the same time that he’s driving in the present, crashing into “present” cars he can’t see from his “past” perspective (the effect is suitably confusing, and effectively energetic, or, as Doug calls it, “trippy”).
At the same time (so to speak), the far-fetched aspect is somewhat offset by the movie’s gritty look. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, it underscores ongoing and broad-based concerns about terrorism and security. Doug’s investigative excursions into the still-devastated Ninth Ward raise pointed questions about the government’s abilities to protect citizens either from “natural” or man-made disasters.
Washington’s focused performance holds together the movie’s various thematic strands. His Doug is certainly an intrepid and even a romantic hero, devoted to Claire’s case as much as the terrorist plot. But he is also a believably skeptical detective, and his questions about motives and technologies tend to mirror yours. These questions come to a head when he interrogates the terrorist suspect, Carroll Oerstadt (Jim Caviezel). Of a philosophical piece with Timothy McVeigh, Carroll’s desire for revenge against the U.S. military is at once personal and political, with oblique connections to current recruitment concerns as well as definitions of “patriotism.”
“True liberty,” declares the cheerlessly self-righteous Carroll, “must be refreshed with blood.” And so of course he means to spill it, even as Doug means to stop him. As they embody very different ideas about national identity, they’re also very different readers, of meaning and motive. Doug stands in for you, a committed movie-watcher (he instructs the FBI kids as to focus and mobile framing while they look in on Claire’s apartment for hours on end). Carroll, however, tends to read what he wants, with other people’s images only getting in the way. He has a “destiny,” he says, articulating a specific sense of fate and faith. “You think you know what’s coming,” he intones, “But you don’t have a clue.”
Given the movie’s title and Doug’s belief that he can, in fact, decipher clues accurately (whether these clues look forward or back), this sounds like a challenge. Carroll, being the villain, can’t win, even if Doug’s trajectory does bring some surprises, illogical and even irrelevant. Then again, Déjà Vu isn’t much interested in plot. It is instead focused on the re-assembly of pieces you’ve seen before. You think you know what’s coming.