In Thoroughbreds, writer-director Cory Finley delivers an astonishing debut. The film features two astounding lead performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as a pair of grim highschoolers. The plot of the film unwinds in four chapters (plus an epilogue), in which information is revealed piecewise and the tension and mystery of this thriller matures into a chilling climax. All the while, the spectator is treated to some stunning cinematography that perfectly captures the pristine affluence of the setting while simultaneously hinting at some dark kernel. This grim tone permeates the film, lending Thoroughbreds an additional layer of significance and meaning.
Director Darren Aronofsky is not known for subtlety or crowd-pleasing. Afterall, his indie debut featured a mathematician obsessed with pi and orthodox Jews who thought his work was discovering the true name of God. He delved deep into every facet of drug abuse, focused a character study around a wrestler, used high-end ballet as a backdrop for a psychological thriller, and put Rock Giants in the story of Noah’s Ark. “Iconoclast” probably doesn’t do him justice.
Consistency of tone is essential for a successful psychological horror story. In It Comes at Night, writer-director Trey Edward Shultz establishes an unyielding bleakness that completely permeates the entirety of his post-apocalyptic story. The constant pressure of this mood grows and oppresses the viewer, like an emotional constrictor squeezing all hope and joy from the proceedings. In short: It Comes at Night is not a fun or pleasant viewing experience, and it is clear from the opening shot that this is not a world where things turn out well. Its dogged pursuit of desolation is not mere pessimism – it’s an exploration of human fear, mistrust, and desperation.
Writer-director Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a potent and poignant allegory about modern race relations in suburban America. It is constructed on the skeleton of a slow-burn horror-thriller, with some awkward comedy thrown in for good measure. Satirical to its very core, Get Out ridicules the WASP-y “post-racism” of the middle-upper class, and suggests that despite protestations to the contrary, this racism is just as nefarious as blatant hatred. Through a deft use of genre tropes, Peele develops this allegory to its full potency, and the audience reaps the rewards. As the pieces fall into place, we are eating out of Peele’s hand at every turn and there is only one conclusion: Get Out is a masterpiece, harshly satiric and thoroughly creepy.
In 1991, dozens of happy accidents converged into one of the greatest thrillers of all time: The Silence of the Lambs. It is the most recent film to win Academy Awards in all five of the major categories (both leading actors, screenplay, director, and best picture). As that distinction may suggest, practically every aspect of the film boasts superlatives. The performances are exceptional. Ted Tally’s adaption of the screenplay structures the film with the familiar beats of the hero’s journey, but provides enough twists to keep us on edge. Jonathan Demme’s direction shows restraint and courage, and produces moments rife with tension, many of which do not exist on the page. The characters, technical work, and writing all cooperate towards a single goal: championing a theme of female strength and intellect in a world dominated by men, and the courage that it takes to confront true evil.
Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller Split will not make audiences forget about the director’s most embarrassing missteps, but the film evokes The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable more than The Happening and After Earth. The film follow the abduction of three teenage girls by a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID). Known to us as “Kevin”, the man harbors 23 distinct personalities, and as some of them begin to run things, we’re confronted with a powerful force living inside Kevin – a 24th personality known only as “The Beast”. The film is commendable for its uses of classic camera techniques to disorient the audience and ratchet up the more realistic aspects of the film, while downplaying the more fantastic and silly elements. Aided by two spectacular performances (and a collection of other strong ones), Split is easily the best film Shyamalan has made in over a decade – and may be second only to The Sixth Sense.
Nocturnal Animals is fashion designer Tom Ford’s second feature film as both writer and director, and once again he has delivered a nuanced film full of emotion, sadness, and intrigue. Starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, the film is a peculiar mixture of crime thriller and relationship melodrama, married through an inventive “story-within-a-story” structural device: the main character reads a manuscript of her ex-husband’s novel, and the film’s narrative ping-pongs between the real world and the world of the novel. As the procedural story unravels in the novel, we learn more about the relationship between these two characters in multiple flashbacks.
Can a well be dry after a single successful trip? Because if Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is the best this franchise has to offer after its surprising debut, then we might as well be drinking sand. None of the new characters are likable, the acting is hollow, and the writers deprive Jack Reacher himself of any real interest. The plot is derivative and full of generic bad guys that make Jai Courtney look like Anton Chigurh. The screenplay is written by three people, none of whom are named “Christopher McQuarrie”, and is populated by wooden groaners and extreme plot conveniences. The plot is generic, and its associated “twist” is lazy and telegraphed worse than the death of Han Solo. This is a film that is completely bereft of technique, subtlety, and intrigue.
Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant is an entertaining thriller that sports a peculiar mix of black ops action and wry humor. It focuses around a high-functioning autistic man named Christian Wolff who handles advanced ballistics just as well as he does advanced calculus. The story is told through multiple flashbacks, and follows multiple characters in the present day as they interact. Not everything gels together perfectly, and the underlying themes are fairly under-developed in favor of a simplistic action sequences, but The Accountant does far more right than it does wrong.