Out of Time (2003)

There’s something stifling about the heat.
— Sanaa Lathan, “Out of Time: Crime Scene”

That’s the guy.
— Hotel clerk (Eric Hissom), Out of Time

Palm trees, muggy air, house boats. In Out of Time, fictional Banyan Key, off Florida’s Gulf Coast, is the sort of place where a sultry saxophone sounds right. It’s dense with detailed “atmosphere” but also “out of time,” as the title suggests, set apart from the usual urban hubbub, languid, a little offbeat. It’s the sort of place where the police chief, Matt Lee Whitlock (Denzel Washington), spends his evenings checking that shop doors are locked, while waiting for something more interesting to pop up.

When he gets a call from Ann (Sanaa Lathan), he doesn’t sound surprised. Someone’s broken into her house, and okay, maybe Matt ought to head over and check it out. He does, in no visible hurry, walks up her steps, knocks on her door. The bad guy seems to be gone, but still, Matt wonders, “Did you get a good look at this fella?” Yeah, she did: “He kinda looked like you.” Right, so he was good-looking? Matt presses with additional questions, and, a few more minutes of role-playing later make clear that this ruse — the call, the supposed break-in — is something of a routine for Ann and Matt, and they’re climbing all over each other, going so far as to mention his “deadly weapon.”

As unabashed as this lovers’ exchange may be, it sets up the film’s essential concern, namely, the many ways that a black man “looks” guilty — whether or not anyone gets a “good look” at him. Director Carl Franklin has explored this idea before, in One False Move (1991) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), and this time, a stereotypically oppressive “Southern” context is only the beginning. (The original script by Dave Collard featured no characters of color; once Washington signed on, the whole picture changed.) Out of Time is as much about ignorance (as in, willful blindness and cultural prerogative) as it about misjudgments and deceptions.

This despite Franklin’s own suggestion, on the DVD commentary track, that though he usually comes up with a “serious premise” for his films, he sees Out of Time as a “romp” (he discusses his attention to the color palette, the “sherbet” look of South Beach, to underscore “the heat of the sexuality”). Still, Franklin expresses his interest in “redemption,” working against expectations, and working with good actors. As he tells it, “75% of getting good performances out of actors, and being what they call an ‘actor’s director,’ is knowing an actor when you see one… to get in a room, and to do a lot of subtext investigation, to do a lot of talking about who this character is and where they come from.”

While MGM’s DVD includes other extras — character “profiles,” screen tests (Lathan and Dean Cain), a couple of “outtakes,” and a 12-minute making-of documentary, “Out of Time: Crime Scene,” where the film is described repeatedly, in terms of plot, mood, weather, location, and genre (i.e., “It’s a very hot, romantic thriller,” courtesy Sanaa Lathan) — Franklin’s commentary is easily its most significant resource. He spends much of it detailing the production experience: scouting and converting locations (“blowing the ceiling,” “pulling the walls”), costume decisions (the coroner Chae [John Billingsley] wears shorts and a trucker’s cap), negotiating compositions for a PG-13 rating (sex scenes that obscure “thrusting”), and logistical issues (whether how long it takes a phone to ring and a fax to be delivered is “realistic” or not).

Attention to such considerations no doubt contributes to the film’s general economy. Generic as it may be, Out of Time is also, as Franklin says, “bouncy.” And so, while Matt thinks he’s on top of his situation, he’s plainly not. His erstwhile high school sweetheart, Ann is currently married to ex-NFL quarterback Chris Harrison (Dean Cain), and Matt’s estranged wife, Detective Alex Diaz (Eva Mendes), has recently left him. The fact that Chris abuses his wife and bullies everyone else he knows establishes an extra threat, even if Matt does possess that deadly weapon. Ann stays with Chris because, she insists, because “He needs me, I guess I feel sorry for him.” It’s a familiar line and Matt should know better, but it makes a weird sense for the complications he embodies; he’s reluctant to commit, just as she is.

Matt’s investment — emotional certainly, but also politically, legally, and financially — becomes more intense (and costly) when he learns that Ann has cancer, some terrible, fast-advancing type that demands immediate, experimental treatment at a facility in Switzerland. (Franklin discusses the “major problem” they faced in making Matt “committed to” Ann but also “able to gracefully recover, and actually be in love with his wife”; it was “a very difficult balance that we had to juggle,” he observes, while watching Matt observe and then break in on an episode of Chris’ abuse of Ann.)

When other ostensible means of funding fall through, Matt makes a sacrifice (one he thinks he can manage), stealing $485,000 in drug money from the evidence safe at his office. Such extravagant silliness makes you wonder about Matt’s capacity for rational thinking (and Franklin notes on the commentary track that he was relying, “somehow,” on Washington’s “own integrity”). The plot turns increasingly strange. Almost as soon as he delivers the money to Ann, her house burns down, and among the smoking embers, the cops find two charred bodies (which, Franklin notes, look “extreme,” but are based on his own research on “corpses that had been burned”).

Now the movie turns gloomier, faster, and more predictable, as Matt finds himself framed for the murders. The script draws from previous films noirs, including The Big Clock (1948) and Body Heat (1981), in its focus on the smart but careless cop scurrying to stay a step of the cops looking to jam him up. The rest of the action occupies only a few hours in Matt’s life, as he is running “out of time,” now, in another way, so he’s simultaneously living outside of it and inside, pursued as he pursues sources he hopes might lead to the killer.

The fact that he’s a black man only makes these several lines of pursuit more complicated and more resonant. The most overt example comes when Ann’s neighbor comes down to the police station to tell a sketch artist about the man she saw outside Ann’s house the night the house burned down. She spots the chief across the room, and suggests he’s the man she saw, the woman’s daughter apologizes to the chief, saying, “Mother was raised in a different time.” Meanwhile, the office staff and cops have a good laugh over this suggestion (Franklin calls it the “old adage”) that all black guys still look alike to white neighbor ladies. In particular, they look guilty, an idea the film presses, carefully.

Simultaneously, Out of Time thoroughly explores Matt’s masculine “performance” anxieties — as these are and are not shaped by race. Toward this end, as he attempts to maintain a semblance of “control” over the investigation, he repeatedly runs up against macho poser Chris. Just so, they meet in a dark and empty bar, where Chris challenges Matt to confess his affair with Ann (which she has insisted he not do). Franklin reveals on the commentary that this masculinist tête-à-tête is his “favorite scene,” though he removed it in the first cut (“This was like lopping off an arm when I was considering cutting this scene”). “The interesting thing about film,” he extrapolates, “is that you think it’s a matter of hard time. You’ll say okay, that if you cut 20 seconds out of a scene, you’ll feel those 20 seconds gone. Not so… 10 seconds in a movie can make it seem like it’s 10 minutes too long if it’s not appropriate, if it’s redundant dialogue, if it’s redundant action, if it somehow does not drive the story forward.”

As Matt spends most of his time worrying over, tracking, and trying to understand Ann, he tends to push away Alex. Independent-minded and professional, she’s not about to stay home (or even pretend to, like Ann does), and the briefly noted “history” with Matt suggests that they tussled over her career, especially as her ambition and rewards began to outstrip his. Alex appears to have a good sense of how things work, and isn’t easily duped. That she’s willing to be duped by her ex, or go along, even for a minute, suggests that she knows something about him that he hasn’t quite grasped. She’s prone to wearing tight A-line skirts and heels on the job, but her visible determination and killer stare (as well as Mendes’ most convincing onscreen performance to date) make Alex engaging and complex. That the plot only calls her in to make Matt’s lack of time more apparent is frustrating, but she serves her purpose and then some.

This purpose, to expose Matt’s increasing anxieties and sporadic insights, does underline Out of Time‘s own investigation of the race and class dynamics of noir, always more intricate than they seemed on the genre’s generally white surface. Guilt, suspicion, betrayal, and desire: Matt incarnates the underpinnings of a culture that remains preoccupied with that surface.