(Choose) is more preposterous than powerful.
ChooseDirector: Marcus Graves
Cast: Katheryn Winnick, Kevin Pollak, Nick Tucci, Bruce Dern
US date: 2011-03-18 (General release)
UK date: 2011-03-18 (General release)
By now, the serial killer subgenre has become a rather barren cinematic bellwether. With Saw on its last legs and Anthony Hopkins reduced to retreading Hannibal Lecter as part of his role in The Rite, we've probably seen the last of the inventive fright film employing the dreaded fiend as a fear monger. That won't stop up and coming movie makers from trying, however, as the recent IFC title Choose (available On Demand and in limited theatrical release) proves. Featuring a hoodie-wearing horror with a non-threatening voice and a tendency to give his victims a fatal version of the "Lady or the Tiger" alternative, we get many of the standard terror beats. Nothing new, nothing completely novel. Toward the end, however, when the ID pieces finally start coming together, the movie remakes itself as a solid, sinister whodunit, leaving the otherwise limp dread in the dust.
Fiona Wagner (Katheryn Winnick) is a journalism student with a troubled past. Her father (Kevin Pollack) is the local sheriff and a few years back, her mother (his wife) was found dead in a motel pool. The incident was ruled a suicide, but our heroine doesn't believe her mom would willingly end her own life. Instead, she gets wrapped up in the recent murder of a noted defense attorney, the crime revolving around a killer who made the man's teen daughter decide who among the family to slaughter. Within days, Fiona feels the threat hitting much closer to home. As a musician is maimed, and then a model, the populace demand answers. But her father can't seem to find the connection, and our lead is still convinced that this all has something to do with her mother. Eventually, all clues lead to a misguided therapist (Bruce Dern) at a nearby juvenile detention center. Seems the course of treatment led at least one young man to 'choose' a less than friendly path in life.
For a while, Choose is just muddled and mediocre. It goes through the motions with lifeless ennui, attempting to elicit suspense and dread out of poorly shot shower scenes and basic library stalking. We get the occasional kill, complete with the laughably-voiced villain offering victims an obvious "choice", and suddenly shades of John Kramer/Jigsaw come whisking past our perception. Indeed, the movie plays like a substantially less bloody version of the tepid torture porn spawned by the James Wan/Leigh Whannell phenomenon. Not even the unusual presence of Pollack can dissuade us from playing compare and contrast. It goes without saying that Ms. Winnick is nice enough on the eyes, but the script (by Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson) continuously subverts the scary movie standards inherent in the story. We want terror, not tense stare downs. Of course, it's all for a reason (everything has to tie together in the end), but at least for the set-up, Choose is deadly...dull.
Then the whole juvenile detention angle (introduced via a nice scene involving some old library books) steps up, and suddenly the movie comes to life. All throughout the dreary first act, we hoped that our murderer was something more than just a random wacko with a thirst for judgment based blood. As the pieces start falling into place, as old hat ham actor Bruce Dern shows up to spread his particularly peculiar style of performance artistry on everyone else, our interest is once again peaked. We are suddenly willing to see things through to the finale, especially during a disturbing sequence where our now-named prime suspect, in adolescent flashback, teaches his keepers (and an innocent dog) who is boss. From then on, Choose starts to gel. Even a random moment in the motel where Fiona's mother died gets a nice bit of bookending.
There is also some fun to be finally be found in the performances. Winnick works hard for her minor money, never really coming alive as a viable heroic presence, but still smart (and sexy) enough to keep us more or less engaged. Pollack is even more unusual, in that we don't expect him in such an authoritative mode. Some of the supporting players do nice work, including a group of red herring college friends and Kate Nauta, who plays the spoiled supermodel with such verve that when presented her 'choice' (her eyesight or her well-paid beauty) we really become concerned. Sure, the movie is more or less a two person process, with some ancillary individuals thrown in for good measure. But only our evil lead ends up being a bit of a disappointment. While he has a strong scene post-reveal, his mysterious presence is more preposterous than powerful.
The bigger question remains - can a movie really work when half of its feels routine and redundant? Even more concerning is the reliance on a cinematic convention long past its sell-by date. Still, the answer to the original query, at least in the case of Choose, is "yes", though the jury may remain out for many in the fright film fanbase. Again, director Marcus Graves (this is his first time behind the lens) paints everything in the same desaturated tones of the no longer gratifying 'gorno', and when given the opportunity to lighten the mood with either nudity or nonsensical gore, he avoids both. Instead, he takes things far too seriously, making at least part of this project a chore to endure. Luckily, things right themselves toward the end, making Choose a tough choice, both from a commercial and creepshow standpoint.