The American debut of Hong Kong director Wai-keung Lau (aka Andrew Lau), whose Infernal Affairs films were better than Martin Scorsese’s remake, focuses on another divided character in a sleazy, morally complex world. Thanks to arcane studio politics, this healthily-budgeted, star-driven (if downbeat) thriller has slid out straight to video – it deserves better, but it has its flaws and foibles. It opens and closes unwisely with the too-familiar ‘he who fights monsters’/‘abyss looks back’ quotation which has been used often in the movies (in The Abyss, for instance) and really oughtn’t to be prefaced with that ‘someone once said’ line – which asks us to accept either that the hero doesn’t know it was Nietzsche or doesn’t want rubes in the audience to lose sympathy with him for being a smart-ass (studio execs really do think like this, which displaces onto screen characters in an unhelpful manner).
Richard Gere, following excellent work in The Hoax with another nuanced performance that shows how good he can be if given the material, is the oddly-named Erroll Babbage, a social worker charged with keeping tabs on released sex offenders. He is on the point of being forcibly retired by his boss (Ray Wise) and has to train up his replacement Allison Lowry (Claire Danes). Erroll comes down hard on his charges (‘these people don’t just tell lies, they are lies’) and isn’t above moonlighting as a violent vigilante to keep them in line. Basically, he’s Dirty Harry as a social worker and keeps up a flow of tough, pragmatic advice to his new partner even as he demonstrates enough obsessive behaviour – circling news items about crimes which might have been committed by someone in his ‘flock’ – to qualify as a suspect. Meanwhile, to remind audiences this is a Se7en/8mm-style dark thriller rather than a middle-aged crackup drama, a news story unfolds about sweet teenage girl Harriet Mills (Kristina Sisco), abducted on her way home from an afternoon’s horseyback riding and chained up in a trailer park to be tortured by persons unknown. Given that we’ve seen enough torture scenes lately to get the picture, Lau uses brief snippets of agony to establish the girl’s ordeal.
The solution is hinted at early on, and adds up to an Orient Express-type deal, but is clever anyway – Erroll points out that the trouble with a ‘name and shame’ policy of publicising the locations of sex offenders is that not only are regular citizens warned but they can find each other. A self-help group among the flock have been pressuring for Babbage’s dismissal, and a hard core of extreme maniacs – Edmund Grooms (Russell Sams), a wealthy girl-battering creep, Glenn Custis (Matt Schultze), an all-round brutal perv, Haynes Ownby (French Stewart), a chaser of underage skirts, and Viola Frye (KaDee Strickland), the Myra Hindley-type accomplice/wife of an executed serial killer – have clubbed together to kidnap Harriet as a way to torment their tormentor. Viola is good master villain, initially enlisting Allison’s sympathy by playing the drab victim as she claims to have been unwillingly implicated in her husband’s crimes, but later donning a bright red coat (a rare touch of colour in an otherwise deliberately drab picture) to take a dominant role in the abuse of Harriet, even outranking and enslaving the would-be masterful male Grooms (whom she kills and tries to frame).
As is often the case with mysteries, there’s a slight letdown at the end, which involves a standard face-off in the trailer park and the rescue of a damsel in distress – it’s not that the resolution is unsatisfying, but it shrinks what had seemed to be a bigger story of an all-pervasive corruption into a defeat for a couple of bad, mad folks. Lau retains his distinctive, jittery, queasy style – with sickly-looking images of desolate deserts and urban sleazeholes, and lots of close-ups of suffering, bruised faces (singer Avril Lavigne, in a cameo as Grooms’ sub, even gets a close-up of her broken front teeth). It’s not quite all there, but it is interesting.