Hell or High Water (2016)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

Thieves are not despised who steal only to satisfy their appetite when they are hungry.

Yet if they are caught, they will pay sevenfold; they will forfeit all the goods of their house.

Proverbs 6:30-31

 For the wages of sin is death

Romans 6:23


Tanner (lft) & his brother stay at their ranch between bank heists. (c) CBS Films

Scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan and director David Mackenzie grace us with one of the best modern Western thrillers to come along thus far this year. Dealing with a pair of bank robbers and two Texas Rangers on their trail, it is as much a study in character and the times and mood of our country as it is an adventure.

In a tiny town in West Texas two masked men barge into a Midlands branch bank as soon as a teller opens up. They have to wait until the manager shows up, and when he angers one of them, the robber slams his pistol across the victim’s face. They take only the money from the cashiers’ drawers, not attempting to get at the larger amounts of cash in the vault.

The two men are brothers, divorced father of two sons Toby (Chris Pine) and the ex-convict Tanner (Ben Foster). As the film unfolds we see it is Toby who persuaded Tanner to undertake the robberies so they can save the ranch, which their just-deceased mother has left them. Toby wants to provide for the two sons that he has neglected. When he goes to talk with them, we discover that it has been a year since his last visit. The bank, yes, one of the Midland Bank chain, is about to foreclose on the property, so Toby is racing the clock to meet the deadline. His desperation is especially heightened by the fact that an oil company wants to drill on their land because its survey indicates that they can pump over 2000 gallons a month out of the parched land. It is actually their lawyer, to whom they deliver their alleged casino winnings for negotiating with the bank holding their mortgage, who reminds them that they must raise the full amount by the date of foreclosing come hell or high water.

Toby is the brains of the pair, while Tanner is the exuberant one. Indeed, the latter seems to derive too much pleasure from the action of holding people at gunpoint and speeding away in an old dilapidated car. Can he be kept in check? What might their brandishing their guns about lead to? To avoid tracing their getaway car, Toby buries it in a large ditch he has dug behind the ranch house. He launders the money at the Native American casinos over in Oklahoma by buying large amounts of chips. While he drinks, Tanner uses some of the money to play poker, a game that he wins more often than he loses. By the end of their stay they cash in their chips, thus insuring that none of their bills can be traced to them.

Meanwhile Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are assigned to track the robbers down. The curmudgeonly Marcus, like the old lawman played by Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, is on the cusp of retirement. He maight be old, but his mind is as keen as ever. And so, unfortunately is the inbred racism of his childhood, though it does become apparent that he actually likes his Native American-Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) whom he is constantly insulting with racial slurs.


Texas Rangers Marcus (rt) & Alberto are on their way to intercept the bank robbers. (c) CBS Films

With his slow drawl and flinty face, eyes half slits because they have taken in too much of the relentless Texas sunlight, it would be easy to underestimate the Ranger, much as everyone did with Detective Columbo. However, this old boy knows the thinking of the crooks he chases, correctly guessing that the robbers are probably gathering cash for a mortgage. He understands their modus operandi, entering a bank first thing in the morning so as to avoid customers, and stealing only the lower denomination bills that cannot be traced. He also notes that all of their banks are Midland Banks located in a small area together. He knows that they are bound to make a mistake, so he is confident they will soon catch them. Figuring which bank will be struck next, he rents a motel room, and the two wait for their prey to show up.

The brothers’ mistake comes when…well, here let’s just say that it is both a thrilling and a funny scene. Funny because while Toby is at a diner talking to a flirty waitress, Tanner goes across the street and robs the bank on his own. Yelling to his brother to start their car, he runs back with loose bills flying into the air as he tries to keep the ones he has stashed between his stomach and his shirt from falling out. Later, the film takes on a darker tinge because when you use guns to rob banks, sooner or later someone is going to shoot back. During a thrilling chase scene there are some very sudden, unexpected developments when Marcus and Alberto finally catch up with one of the brothers.

This is a film in which the countryside and the mood of the times are important. The wide open spaces with tiny, dilapidated towns and their small banks; the numerous bill boards with large words such as DEBT, CASH, and LOANS prominently displayed, indicating that in such a hound dog economy only the financial service industries are thriving.

The myriad of bit characters are spot on—the table of good ole boys at the diner who banter with Marcus; the bank clerks and managers; a belligerent Commanche at a casino whom we expect to get into a row with Tanner; the driver at a gas station who threatens Tanner with his gun, severely beaten by Toby when he comes up from behind; and best of all, two waitresses at diners—the flirty one upset when Marcus demands that she hand over the $200 tip that Toby had left her. The second is an old gal at The T-Bone Diner who confuses Marcus and Alberto when she comes to their table and says, “What don’t you want ?” As she rants on, we see that apparently she has grown tired of Eastern tourists coming in and demanding vegetable dishes not on the menu, this being a steak and potatoes place. If there were Oscars for cameo roles, the actress playing her would be nominated!

All four actors in the major roles are terrific, with Bridges especially dominating almost every scene he is in. What a far cry from his glib tongued Jack, the radio talk host in The Fisher King! His aging lawman character who lives solely for the pursuit of the bad guys is well demonstrated in the last scene of the film that ends with a note of ambiguity.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster make us feel sympathy for their characters, even though we know what they are doing is wrong. We can understand why they venture outside the law due to their impoverished background. The billboards mentioned earlier are aimed at desperate people like the brothers, indicating that they are victims as well as predators, a theme harking back to older Westerns featuring characters like Jesse and Frank Jamses The intelligent Toby knows he is the bad guy: in a poignant scene with his older son, he emphasizes that he does not want the lad to be like him.

The film even places the current mortgage crisis in which so many people are losing their homes into an historical context, one going back a couple of centuries. In a scene wherein Marcus mocks Alberto’s heritage, the latter observes that 150 years ago his people ruled in the land, and that the grandparents of the present owners took it. Now it is the banks that are taking it from them.

With Nick Cave’s music ably enhancing the somber mood, this film for me is just about perfect. Due to be released to a limited number of theaters on August 12, and then on a wider basis, I would urge you to mark the date on your calendar. If you love well crafted films that make you feel for the characters and think about their lives and the times, this is a film not to be missed!


This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.

The Purge: Election Year (2016)


Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 45 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 3

Is this any way to run a country?  Is there an honest politician in the house?

Behind the scenes you brew cauldrons of evil,  behind closed doors you make deals with demons.

The wicked crawl from the wrong side of the cradle;  their first words out of the womb are lies. Poison, lethal rattlesnake poison, drips from their forked tongues— Deaf to threats, deaf to charm,

 decades of wax built up in their ears.

Psalm 58:1-4


Anarchy reigns for 12 hours in the nation’s capitol on Purge Night.                              (c) Universal

Having been less than enthusiastic about the original The Purge, I skipped the 2014 sequel, but decided to see this third installment because I wanted to see if there is any connection between the title and current politics. (Also because no other film worked into my schedule during my weekly visit to a nearby cinemaplex.)

Writer-director James DeMonaco’s third film is more of a sequel this time than was the 2014 film, with Frank Grillo’s police sergeant Leo Barnes having moved from Los Angeles to the nation’s capitol where he is head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). She needs all the protection she can get because she is involved in the presidential campaign, the main point in her platform being the abolition of The Purge. She argues that it is the nations’ poor, especially the homeless, that are victimized by the Purge as part of the government’s policy of getting rid of those who are benefiting from government programs. Also her own family had been murdered, she being the sole survivor. The New Founding Fathers (NFF), who have ruled the country for 25 years, are determined to eliminate her during the upcoming 12 hour-period of murder and mayhem called The Purge. They have updated the rules by eliminating the law forbidding any attack on a politician. Now everyone is fair game, though the NFF members will be safe in their fortress bunker.

When I reviewed the original, I dismissed the story’s premises as being unlikely, but today, when we have a political candidate advocating the torture of terrorists and the killing of their families, and the crowds applaud and cheer him, the premise of the series doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous as I had once thought.

Also, in my earlier review I had mentioned that, like so many sci-fi tales, The Purge had ignored the presence of the church. Not this time, the New Founding Fathers seen to be embracing a weird blend of Christianity and pagan blood-sacrifice. Some of the bloodiest of the many shoot-outs in the film are set in a large Washington DC cathedral, the wooden pews punctured by hundreds of bullets and blood running in the aisles.

The film begins with two parallel stories that converge about a fourth of the way into the film. There is African-American convenience owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his faithful employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), the latter a Mexican immigrant whom he has mentored. At 6 P.M. when the Purge begins, the well-armed Joe is atop his building vowing to protect his livelihood, especially since he has learned that his insurance premiums have been raised beyond his ability to afford them. Marcos joins him, despite Joe’s orders to go home. Sure enough, a van of grotesquely made up and masked people drive up, the occupants turning out to be the arrogant school girls that Joe had caught trying to shoplift that afternoon.

At Senator Roan’s residence Leo is supervising defensive preparations. She has refused to take shelter in a government bunker because she wanted to be like the voters to whom she was appealing. Despite Leo’s vigilance, one of the key staff members has been bribed to sabotage the system, allowing a rogue gang led by skinhead Earl Danzinger (Terry Serpico) to barge into the house. Leo and Charlie manage to escape, taking to the streets, and would have been killed by a gang but for the arrival of Joe and Marcos. There follows a harrowing night of hiding, fleeing, and fighting, which finds the band joining forces with a group that has long opposed The Purge.

As with most such thrillers, there are a lot of improbabilities, but due to all the suspense and action, most viewers will overlook them. As in the second of the films, there is a moral struggle when our heroes plead with one of their number not to wreak vengeance on one of the NFF politicians who has fallen into their hands. Although their appeal that killing the prisoner would lower them all to the level of their enemies, the filmmakers have shown so much violence in gory detail that this worthy moral argument is all but lost.

One of the villains is Minister Edwige Owens (Kyle Secor), Senator Roan’s opponent in the presidential campaign. At first I thought he seemed too far-fetched, a minister who twists Christianity into an affair of violence and hatred. And then I thought of “Christian” anti-abortionists who advocate and defend the killing of abortion doctors, and the Westboro Baptist minister who showed up at the funerals of gay persons with placards declaring that God hates abortionists, and of course, the granddaddy of Christianity distortionists, the KKK. As a character Owens is indeed a stereotype, and yet similar characters do exist in the real world.

When this film was in production its makers could not have known how bizarre the election campaign of 2016 would be. Although no candidate is calling for a Purge (yet), the extreme statements of one of them certainly points in that direction. Let’s hope that reality never catches up with Hollywood!

Most chilling image: In a movie filled with bizarre painted faces and masks, the image that brought a chill to me was a night shot of the iconic Lincoln memorial. We can see the Emancipator’s statue inside, and also painted in dripping blood-colored letters, the word P-U-R-G-E on the pillars. Strewn across the stairway are the bodies of victims, some of them on the right fueling a bond fire.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.

Tranformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Reviewed by Markus Watson

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 45 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 8; Sex/nudity 4; Language 3.

Our star rating (0-5): 3

 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do

Romans 7:14-15

 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

  John 8:34-36


Plenty of action in this sci-fi thriller! (c) 2014 Paramount Pictures

Let me say first that I love the Transformers. As a kid during the 80’s, Transformers were probably my favorite toy; and the after-school Transformers cartoon was probably my favorite cartoon.

Which is why, for me, these twenty-first century Transformers movies are kind of frustrating. There’s lots of action. Lots of explosions. Lots of special effects. And very little substance.

This latest movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction, introduces a new set of human characters led by Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a second-rate wannabe inventor who buys an old broken-down truck and discovers it is actually Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the benevolent Autobots.

Because of the destruction wrought in the battles between the Autobots and Decepticons in the previous movies, humans have grown to hate all Transformers. As a result, CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammar) establishes a unit whose sole purpose is to hunt down and destroy all Transformers. This, of course, leads to lots of chasing, shooting, threatening, transforming, exploding, and wisecracking.

What Cade, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor), and Optimus Prime don’t know is that Attinger is being assisted by another alien robot who is searching for Optimus Prime.

Meanwhile, Attinger is working with billionaire tech mogul Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), who is attempting to create man-made Transformers. More specifically, he is building a Tranformer he calls Galvatron, using the remains of Megatron as a blueprint. Though he believes he is taking advantage of Megatron to achieve his own ends, what Joyce doesn’t know is that Megatron is fully conscious and is actually using Joyce to come back in the form of Galvatron (Frank Welker).

One of the unfortunate ironies of this movie revolves around the Dinobots (a fan favorite), who were heavily promoted as playing an important part in Age of Extinction. The movie, in fact, opens with a scene on prehistoric Earth. An alien ship uses a weapon to turn all animal life into metal. It seems that this will be the origin of the Dinobots; the movie sure seems to be set up for that. But when the Dinobots finally do appear—almost at the very end of the movie, by the way—their appearance has absolutely nothing to do with what seemed to be set up as the back-story for the Dinobots. It left this movie-goer thinking, “Huh?”

If this movie has a theme, I suppose one could say that it has to do with power struggles. Throughout the film, we see the struggle for control in Cade and Tessa’s relationship. We’re also presented with the question of who is actually in control when it comes to Joshua Joyce and Galvatron.

Theologically speaking, the question of control is an important one. It comes up in the tension between ideas like predestination and free will. The question of control also emerges in the struggle with sin. To what extent can we control our sinful nature? How much power does sin have over a person? And how does God fit into that power struggle?

In Romans 7, the apostle Paul expresses his frustration over his struggle with sin. Who really is in control? Himself? Or the sin within him? In the end, Paul rejoices that ultimately God is in control. And because of that, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

A set of reflection/discussion questions are included with the review in the August issue of Visual Parables.


Captain Phillips (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 14 min.

Our Advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex-Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5


Capt. Phillips pleads for the life of his ship’s mate.
(c) 2013 Columbia Pictures

 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.

Psalm 31.2

“Based on a true story,” director Paul Greengrass’s film starts out calmly, but soon has us leaning forward as the suspense increases with the taut action. Screenwriter Billy Ray’s adaptation of the book by Richard Phillips and Stephen Talty, A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs and Dangerous Days at Sea, is guaranteed to hold your interest, even though you know the ultimate outcome already. It is the battle of wits between two determined men that distinguishes this at-sea thriller.

Mr. Greenglass has said he wanted to make more than just a thriller, but also show the contrast between the haves and have-nots, To a limited degree he does at the beginning: we see Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) on an April day in 2009 leaving a comfortable Vermont home with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) to go to the Burlington airport where he will take a plane to Oman to join his ship and crew. On the coast of Somalia Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a thin man clad in worn clothing, looks over a gang of Somalis eager to be chosen for his crew of pirates. He in turn is under orders from a local warlord to capture something big. Later, in a brief conversation with Phillips, Muse will explain that he switched from fishing to piracy because non-Africans had over-fished his home waters. There are virtually no legal jobs available in the failed country’s slack economy–according to a 2012 UN Development Programme the unemployment rate for men between the ages of 15 and 64 is 54%, and that for youth 14 to 29 is 67%!

In the Oman port Captain Phillips inspects his American-owned ship, a cargo container, The Maersk Alabama, and then puts out to sea, bound for Mombasa, Kenya. The ship is transporting 2400 tons of cargo, including relief supplies of food and medicines. The captain briefs his crew about the danger of the area they will traverse, about two hundred miles off the Somali coast, and puts them through a practice drill. This soon turns into the real thing when on their radar screen Phillips sees two blips heading toward them. The blips are two motorized skiffs launched from a decrepit trawler serving as the mother ship. As they speed along, the small craft are soon visible through binoculars. The chase over the next few hours is not as speedy as the careening car chases of fictional thrillers, but it is just as suspenseful, with the unarmed merchantmen at first fending off their attackers with their fire hoses. The little boats almost capsize in the large waves created by the ship, so the worried leader in one of them turns back. Muse gives up only when the old motor of his boat breaks down.

With the motor repaired back on their mother ship, Muse resumes the chase the next day, this time succeeding in boarding their prey. Capt. Phillips has ordered the crew to hide in the engine room, so he and his bridge crew wait for the arrival of their captors. The machine gun toting pirates shoot away the various locks of the doors and rush in. Muse, the only pirate speaking English, says, “Captain, relax, nobody gets hurt. No Al Qaeda here. Just business.” Thus begins the battle of wits between the older Phillips and the ex-fisherman. Keeping his calm, the Captain tries several ruses, and at one point the crew members in the engine room manage to seize one of the pirates when his bare-footed companion steps on the glass shards they have spread before the doorway and he has to retreat to the bridge for medical age. Also, Captain Phillips tries to get Muse to settle for the $30,000 stored in the safe, but the pirate refuses. The ship, cargo, and lives of the crew are worth millions, and he will settle for nothing less because he knows his warlord will punish him severely if he accepts such a paltry offer.

In all the scenes the brilliance of Tom Hanks is matched by that of the nonprofessional Barkhad Abdi, leader of the group. His looks and his voice convince us that he would do anything to get what he is after. Also quite good are the other non-professional actors, Faysal Ahmed as the hot-headed Najee, and Barkhad Abdirahman as Bilal who is the nervous driver of the enclosed lifeboat in which they hope to make it back to their home with Phillips as their hostage. (The three actors were found among the large Somali population in Minnesota.)

Compared to the sequences shot on the huge 500+ foot Alabama, those filmed in the confined space of the lifeboat are claustrophobic inducing. Muse has had to contend not only with the various lies and ruses of Captain Phillips, but the also with the aggressive Najee, who shouts and screams, often questioning his leader’s acts. The latter almost loses control of himself when a US Navy destroyer and helicopters show up.

There follows the tense negotiations with the military, the Naval captain under orders not to allow the lifeboat to reach Somalia. Captain Phillips complicates matters for his captors by managing to dive overboard. Even though he is recaptured, this no doubt affects Muse as he argues with Najee whether or not to trust the Naval negotiator who has told them that the elders of his village are aboard and want to meet with him. The intense ending induces feelings of relief mixed with sadness. Anyone with half a heart will have begun to extend at least a small measure of sympathy to the villains because the film has made it clear that they too are victims of a worldwide system of haves and have-nots. They are not the cardboard faceless stooges that audiences cheer the death of in the usual thriller. Surly there was rejoicing in heaven over the release from captivity of the American, but also there must have been some tears for those, who as Phillips in one of his pleas says (in effect, as I don’t recall the exact words), “You don’t have to die!”

As with another survival film Gravity, this film is a secular work apparently written and directed by two men who would not think of praying, even under duress. Their depiction of the Americans is understandable, with recent studies showing that up to 20% of Americans would answer a religion poll as “None of the above.” But the depiction of Somalis who do not mention the Prophet or Allah is not excusable. Of course, this is a minor qualm. What happened to Captain Phillips is not only extraordinary: he himself is extraordinary—from the calm way he handles himself on the ship trying to save the lives of his crew; to his sorrowful concern in the lifeboat that his captors were needlessly throwing their lives away; to the last scene when, safe aboard the destroyer, he lets out all the feelings he has held inside, this movie provides us with not only two hours plus of thrills, but an occasion to admire the resourcefulness of the human spirit.


Gravity (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our Content Adviserories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 4.5


Astronauts Dr. Ryan Jones and Mission Commander Mat Kowalski are stranded in space when debris destroys their space shuttle.
(c) 2013 Warner brothers

 Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

            Psalm 31:2-5

We see no evidence in this suspenseful space film that Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a believer, but if she were, the above words of the psalmist might well have been her prayer. A medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, she is space suited up and teamed with another astronaut repairing a device on the Hubble telescope’s extended arm while the mission commander, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), is enjoying using a thruster pack to propel himself around. This being his last mission, he regrets that he will fall short by a few hours of beating the space walk record of a Russian cosmonaut. The three are chatting with each other and Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, a delightful bit of voice casting because he was one of the stars of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), Matt repeating an old astronaut joke, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” A few minutes later this turns out to be prophetic when Houston sends an emergency warning that a Russian station has blown up, the debris hurtling their way at 55,000 mph.  When Ryan is slow to respond to Matt’s command to stop her work and reboard their station, he yells at her to get moving. By then jagged bits and pieces of the remains of the Russian station are flying by them.

Thus, after a marvelous single shot scene lasting about 13 minutes, the roller coaster sequence begins in which the two struggle in zero gravity, first to connect with each other, and then to decide what to do when their station is destroyed, killing all aboard. The third astronaut out working with them also is killed. Ryan, already struggling with the nausea of motion sickness, has trouble when the long cargo arm of the station breaks loose, swinging her wildly around and around and around. When she extricates herself from it, she keeps spinning out of control. Thanks to the calmness of Matt, she overcomes her momentary panic, and at last he is able to connect with her. They are running low on oxygen, so he decides they must head for the Russian International Space Station which should have a shuttle to transport them safely back to earth. There follows a series of mini-disasters that could be regarded as confirmation of Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” Their contact with Mission Control is severed, so they are completely on their own.

This is one film that truly deserves that overworked expletive “Awesome!” Director Alfonso Cuarón, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, as well as his co-script writer son Jonas, has produced a variation of the old survival film worthy of placing alongside of Cast Away and Life of Pi. And not since t he latter film and Avatar has 3-D photography been used so effectively—and is so essential to fully experiencing the film. For once 3-D is not a financial rip off to increase a film’s profits.

Thus Gravity is not a film to wait for until it comes out on DVD in order to save a few bucks. You owe it to yourself to see it on a large screen, with the 3-D really bringing you into the action. When Matt reaches out for a special wrench or nut that is floating toward you, you have to stifle the urge to dodge the gloved hand. There are spectacular, glorious shots of the earth and stars, but equally effective are the close ups of Sandra Bullock’s face, which might remind film buffs of the almost exclusive use of such close ups in Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ms. Bullock is fully up to the challenge of conveying through her facial expressions the gamut of emotions, ranging from nausea, fear, and near panic to relief and determination to survive. The camera at times seamlessly moves from the external or third person POV into her helmet so that we see her in extreme close up, and then it swivels so that we are sharing her perspective on her predicament. She also achieves the almost ballet-like motions of a dancer in the sequence in which, shedding her bulky space suit, she floats her way through a long corridor of a space shuttle. With the least amount of dialogue of any of her films, it is through her facial expressions and the movements—or lack of them when during her period of despair she assumes a fetal position –that she reveals what a consummate actress she is. If you appreciated Tom Hank’s solo feat in Castaway, you are sure to love her performance in this masterful film.

We are reminded at the beginning of the film that nothing can be heard in space, where there is no atmosphere to convey the sound. This makes the sound of Ryan’s labored breathing all the more effective, reminding us that her oxygen is in short supply. Her struggle to reach the ISS, and from there the even more distant Chinese space station, becomes an epic journey of the mind and spirit as well as of the body, a testament of human pluck and perseverance. Steven Price’s musical soundtrack stops at just the right moments so that the silence of space is emphasized all the more.

From one standpoint the coldness and indifference of space might lead to an atheistic outlook—what difference does it make if these two humans live or die out there almost four hundred miles from home? On the other hand, for those who believe, to quote from William Cowper’s hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,” Ryan’s moment of hallucination might be the modern equivalent of Joseph’s life saving dreams early on in the Gospel of Matthew. Filled with despair at one point in the Chinese station so that she is resigned to death, Ryan turns down the oxygen to hasten the inevitable. But her hallucination awakens her to the clue for the possibility of survival that she had not thought of before, and she springs into action. Scriptures in many places suggest that dreams or hallucinations at times have an external, as well as an internal, source. Of course, there is no way to prove this, but then isn’t that what faith is all about? As Hebrews 11:1 puts it, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Again, I urge you not to put off seeing this film, one that will no doubt be up for multiple awards, from Best Actress to all of the technical awards that the Motion Picture Academy offers. “Awesome!” really does sum up this film.

 The full version of this review, including a set of 9 discussion questions, will be in the November 2013 issue of the journal Visual Parables, available to subscribers near the end of October.



Rated R. Our ratings: V -7; L -6; S/N -1. Running time: 2 hours 33 min.

 Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will help you.

Proverbs 20.22

 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12.21


Det. Loki tries to reason with the kidnapped girl’s frustrated father Keller over the slow progress of the investigation.
(c) 2013 Warner Brothers

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowsk’s mystery thriller explores the ins and outs of a parent’s worst nightmare, the kidnapping of a child. And unlike the action thriller Taken, also about a kidnapping (of an adult child), the fathers in this movie are not former secret agents with almost super human powers and knowledge, but just two ordinary guys stretched to the limit of human endurance. The film’s believability factor adds to the tension and suspense that never lets up. We see immediately that Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) will be the focus of the story because the film opens with him and his 14-year-old son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) in their hunting gear watching a buck deer feed nearby. The boy takes careful aim, fires, and the deer drops. Keller expresses his pride at the boy’s first kill, a clean shot.

On the way home he tells Ralph the best advice he received from his father was always to “be ready.” We see that he has followed that advice by stocking their basement with stacks of prepared food, water jugs, and even gas masks. He does not seem to be one of the rabid type of survivalist, but he is ready “just in case” of a breakdown in society. This advice which he has followed and passes on to his son will add to our understanding of his deeds in the dark events that will follow.

Keller and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), lifelong friends, are both married and live just a short walk from each other in a Pennsylvania suburban development. On Thanksgiving Day Keller, wife Grace (Maria Bello), Ralph, and six-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) walk to the Birch’s home. Grace and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) are also good friends, as are teenaged Eliza Birch (Zoe Soul) and 6-year-old Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons) pals with their Dover counterparts. After dinner the parents enjoy conversing while the teenagers watch TV, and the two girls play together. Outside at one point they climb onto the rear bumper of a small rundown RV parked down the street, with the worried parents pulling them off. Then the girls decide to go to the Dover house in search of some toys. It is several hours later before the parents miss the girls and rush frantically through the neighborhood calling for the pair.

Their search is fruitless, and so Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called in. It is telling that he is reached at a restaurant where he is eating alone—and this is Thanksgiving Day. He methodically runs down clues that lead him to the camper and its driver Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Alex confirms Loki and Keller’s suspicion by trying to run away. However, forensics finds no evidence that the girls had been in the camper, and Alex turns out to be so mentally handicapped that he does not seem to comprehend matters when Det. Loki interrogates him. The officer pleads with his superior that the suspect be held beyond the legal 48-hour limit, but the man is let go anyway, returning to his Aunt Holly Jones (Melissa Leo) who cares for him. Not knowing of the detective’s objection to Alex’s release, Keller is angry with Loki, accusing him of letting the only suspect go, and that he is doing nothing, despite the latter’s promise to Grace, “I will find your child!”

The two wives do not hold up well in the crisis, Grace sinking into oblivion with alcohol and pills that send her to her bed. She totally neglects family and house, and therefore is unaware of Keller’s frequent absences. Frustrated that the days are slipping away with no contact from the kidnappers, which means that the girls will probably be killed, Keller crosses the line by becoming a kidnapper himself. He seizes Alex and takes him to an abandoned apartment complex where he beats him while demanding to know where the girls are being held. His assumption that Alex was faking his confusion and would soon buckle is not borne out.

Frustrated, Keller takes Franklin with him to continue his tortuous interrogation of Alex. Franklin is horrified at the brutality of his friend, but when he questions their captive and gets nowhere in obtaining information from him, he does not stop his friend from resuming the beatings. Alex continues to claim he did not kidnap the girls. Meanwhile Det. Loki keeps pushing what seems to be a fruitless search, one that includes some false leads such as a pursuit of a suspiciously acting hooded figure attending a candle light vigil for the girls, and even a child abusing priest. The suspense and fear persist right up to the bizarre ending that left the screening audience gasping out loud.

Unlike most thrillers, this one does not neatly wrap everything at the conclusion. It leaves viewers thinking not only about the fate of its characters (Keller especially), but also about their moral/ethical acts. What would you do if you had the man suspected of abducting your child in your power? Would you use “any means necessary” to extract information from him? Would the possibility that you might be wrong restrain you? And if you were Franklin (or his wife Nancy who learns what their husbands are up to), would you go along, even though you are repulsed by what your friend is doing to the helpless captive?

The complex plot requires close observation and the torture scenes raises the moral question of crossing over the line in the pursuit of truth and justice similar in a way to that of Zero Dark Thirty, or to a much older film about vigilantism The Ox-Bow Incident. Keller is portrayed as a religious man, the film beginning with his saying The Lord’s Prayer while he and his son are observing the deer—admittedly an unusual time to say such a prayer. Later he again recites the prayer, but because of what has happened, and what he is doing, stops at “…and forgive us…” The violence makes this film problematic for some, but for those who appreciate a film with the main characters well developed and morally challenging, this long film is well worth the extra time required.

The full review with a set of 9 questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the November issue of Visual Parables, which will be available toward the end of October. If you are a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, contact the edior, and he can send you the full review.