A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 128 mins.
Doug Carlin: Denzel Washington / Claire Kuchever: Paula Patton / Agent Pryzwarra: Val Kilmer / Carroll Oerstadt: James Caviezel / Denny: Adam Goldberg / Gunnars: Elden Henson / Jack McCready: Bruce Greenwood
Directed by Tony Scott / Written by Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii
Tony Scott’s newest thriller, DÉJÀ VU, is a highly respectable return to form for a director who has seen his last few films fall deep into the depths of mediocrity. It is also proof-positive that you can still tell an old-school and dime-a-dozen police procedural in new and fresh ways.
DÉJÀ VU has its foundations on a remarkably far fetched concept that often borderlines as being asinine, but it is nevertheless held marvelously together by two key elements: A tense and involving script that creates genuine intrigue and forward momentum and yet another solid performance by Denzel Washington that sells the ludicrousness of the film’s premise by his down-to-earth and rock-steady charisma.
It should also be mentioned that this is Tony Scott – at least if you include his recent resume of films – at his most refreshingly restrained in years. Instead of letting MTV inspired visuals and frantic, vomit inducing editing draw attention to themselves, Scott lets his camera settle down for most of DÉJÀ VU and instead lets the story and performances move the picture forward.
Scott has come under fire from me in recent years, especially for his predilection for unnecessary stylistic flourishes. Films like MAN ON FIRE (also with Washington) felt over-directed, as did 2005’sDOMINO, one of the biggest messes of that year where its wanton desire to disorient the viewer with its kinetic and hyperactive cinematography and editing could have easily caused epileptic seizures. Those last two films mentioned reaffirm a steadfast belief of mine that if you tell a story simply with a less-is-more approach, then that often is the best choice. Past Scott films, like the Quentin Tarantino written TRUE ROMANCE from 1993 and the submarine thriller CRIMSON TIDE from 1995 (again, also with Washington), revealed his dedication to story and character first and horrendous visual overkill second. DÉJÀ VU also demonstrates this point.
More than anything, DÉJÀ VU has a glorious and inspired time dealing with the so-called phenomenon of...yes...déjà vu. You know, that ever so subtle – but perseverant – sensation that something momentary that we have experienced, or said, or have heard, feels so eerily familiar, like we have been witness to it before. Sometimes the feeling is fleeting. Oftentimes, it sticks with us, but it is nevertheless there. That’s déjà vu. Scott’s film has grander aspirations with using that sensation for greater storytelling purposes. At least to a few of the characters in the film, there is a distinct reason why some people experience déjà vu.
Déjà vu - at least in the film - coincides with time travel. Well…kind of.
I don’t believe that I am exploring spoiler territory here by mentioning that the film utilizes the premise of temporal travel. It is made abundantly clear in the film’s advertising campaign, which continues to demonstrate how modern studios are giving away way, way too much in an attempt to lure people into the cinemas. Certainly, the time travel aspect of DÉJÀ VU would have been a legitimately surprising plot twist in the film if no preconceived knowledge of it existed in my mind before seeing it. In a way, this in one of those films that could have actually worked even more successfully if the intricate details of the plot were kept under wraps. Nevertheless, Scott and company revealed too much in the trailers, but this does not necessarily preclude that the film is negligible. Far from it.
I will give huge kudos to the screenplay (written by Bill Marsilii & Terry Rossio) with at least coming up with a very unique and interesting manner to incorporate time travel in their film. The concept has seen the light of day in many forms through the years. There were the time traveling cyborgs from the TERMINATOR films, not to mention the time traveling DeLorean from the BACK TO FUTURE trilogy. Then there was one of the most ingenious and hypnotic of all of the recent time travel films, 2004’s PRIMER, which dealt with the nature of paradox and multiple planes of time in logical ways.
Many films shy away from the nature of paradox in time travel sci-fi. Obviously, if one labors away at dissecting these types of films, the logical loopholes that they reveal are large and frustrating (see last year’s laughably bad A SOUND OF THUNDER, where it had paradoxical plot holes that were cringe inducing). However, the best films of this genre know impeccably how to (a) acknowledge the paradox phenomenon of time travel and (b) not focus too much on them to the point where the film’s narrative falls apart. DÉJÀ VU, in fact, occupies much of its running time on dealing with paradox, but no so much that it drains out our overall enjoyment of the story. The film’s pacing, direction, and performances are so grounded and confident that one is willing to forgive the fact that – yes – if you scrutinize the film, the nature of paradox ultimately undoes it all completely. Yet, DÉJÀ VU is so compelling and slick that it’s really hard not to surrender to it. It’s outrageous, but impressively mounted and told. It’s also wickedly entertaining and exciting.
Like all good thrillers, DÉJÀ VU does an exemplary job of establishing the crime, introducing us to the participants, and then throws the audience a plot twist curveball to raise the stakes even more. The film opens in February 2006 in New Orleans, a city still recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina (this is the first film to be produced in the city since the disaster). Unfortunately for the Big Easy, they will face another catastrophe. A ferry that was just on its way out of its pier suddenly explodes in a hellish fireball, killing over 500 voyagers, including members of the military and their wives and kids. Of course, in our paranoid post-911 age, terrorism is seen as the likely cause.
Enter ATF agent Doug Carlin (played in one of those quintessentially effortless performances of conviction and determination by Denzel Washington) to investigate. Carlin is a remarkably astute detective with some really keen observational skills. He looks for things that even the trained eye could miss. Carlin’s initial assessment of the bombing points to something perhaps more homegrown, and his skills are so sharply assured that he comes under the admiration of special FBI agent Pryzwarra (the effectively underplayed Val Kilmer).
Pryzwarra runs one of those highly elite and enigmatic “secret” agencies whose first assignment is the ferry bombing. They have special…how can I say it…methods to track down who the bomber is and how he committed the crime itself. Carlin, being an inquisitive chap, decides to allow himself to be recruited into this FBI agency and follows Pryzwarra to his special headquarters. When he arrives there he discovers the astonishing. The government has developed a way to view anything that has happened within a specific geographical area – from any angle – in the city within the last four days and six hours.
Essentially, imagine one of those STAR TREK-like view screens that is able to give you a shot from any perspective of...say...your home from a period in the past. It’s a time travel big screen TV with limitless camera possibilities. Pryzwarra explains to Carlin that they are able to do this by combining multiple feeds from different satellites. Sure. Uh-huh. Carlin does not buy into either. The FBI tech agents spill the beans that they have indeed created a time portal and they explain it in manners that I cannot possibly rephrase here to make it sound logical, only to say that their explanation is filled with enough techno-mumbo-jumbo to make it sound like it was possible. Throw in Einstein, the words worm hole, temporal, time planes and so on and you get the idea.
Being a man that discerns every single detail of a crime scene, the FBI’s time traveling view screen intrigues Carlin. It even grows more intriguing when he discovers that there is a connection between the murder of a young woman named Claire (the beautiful Paula Patton, who stole Halle Berry’s DNA) and the bombing itself. It is here where the Carlin character grows Hitchcockian in a VERTIGO kind of way. Like Stewart’s character in that film, Carlin becomes obsessed with the woman, wanting to track her every move and action. Having the temporal big screen TV helps a lot. This sets in motion some if the film’s most inspired set pieces, one of them being one of the most unusual car chase scenes I’ve seen. I always love it when a film can show a standard action sequence that I have seen endless times in the past with a clever twist.
It seems that the FBI’s time travel device has a limited range. When they want to follow the bomber (played in a chilling performance by Jim “Jesus” Caviezel) in the past in his pickup truck their cameras loose their feed. However, they have a Hummer with a special headset with a mini-view screen on it that covers one of the eyes of its wearer. Carlin takes the vehicle, drives to the out-of-range area, and the camera feed picks back up to that point in time. Now, with his one eye on the camera – while driving - he is able to see the past where the bomber is driving his truck in front of him speeding away. With his other unobstructed eye he sees the road in the present, with no bomber eluding him. Sounds confusing? Well, you just have to see it. It sure is nifty.
DÉJÀ VU works so efficiently on so many divergent levels. Firstly, it takes the standard elements of a police thriller and mixes that in with a murder mystery and then further meshes that with a science fiction tale. The film reminded me considerably of Steven Spielberg’s MINORITY REPORT, a cop thriller that also involved time travel, albeit in the form of looking into the future. The pleasure of DÉJÀ VU is that it effectively marries its divergent pieces in a manner that never lets one overwhelm the other.
The premise of the film, at its core, is time travel, but the sheer absurdity of it never casts a shadow over the story and characters. If anything, the time travel elements in this story add a whole new dimension to the quest of the hero to investigate the murder and the bombing mystery as a whole. The film is patient and does not needless go for scenes of bombastic action. Instead, as Carlin picks up clues and begins to put the pieces together, we grow to see the larger picture with him. This is made even more clear when he himself time travels to the past (c’mon, it was inevitable) to gain an ever greater sense of the truth. All of this culminates in a third act that is suspenseful, chilling, and – especially in the final scene – kind of haunting. Let’s just say that the film has a very swift and calculating manner of ensuring that Carlin from the past never manages to visit or cross paths with Carlin from the future.
The story is well told and void of excessive frills, which is all the more shocking considering that the usually stylish Scott is behind the camera. The way he curbs his past tendencies with the camera and instead tells the film in a much more straightforward manner is noteworthy and commendable. A film this dense that jumps backward and forward in time demands more visual restraint, and Scott dials it all down appropriately. The film works even better because of Washington’s portrayal of Carlin. Again, Washington displays how he is able to command the audience's buy-in even in the midst of a fantastical storyline. DÉJÀ VU may not be a believable thriller, per se, but it is made all the more believable in the manner Washington sells the performance. Yes, Washington has played roles like this in his sleep before (as he did is Spike Lee’s wonderful INSIDE MAN from earlier this year), but few other actors play the parts so convincingly.
DÉJÀ VU is a real mind-bender of a thriller that plays efficiently as Sam Spade meets Philip K. Dick meets Alfred Hitchcock. It takes the trappings of a police story and fluently joins that with an out-of-this world time travel premise that further creates even more genuine intrigue and thrills. The film has some mighty chasms of logic that the viewer must perilously jump across through its 128 minute running time, but DÉJÀ VU is able to command us to take its joyously tension-filled ride and never look back for unnecessary explanations in common sense. Once you are willing to go with the film’s underlining premise of time travel and not go out of your way to pick holes in it, then DÉJÀ VU emerges as one of the more intrinsically inventive genre pictures in many a moon. The film takes risks and makes gambles, especially when it sharply segues from contemporary cop whodunit to reality-defying sci-fi action picture. The ingenuity of the film is grand, and its follow-though – with slick and solid direction and strong performances – helps make DÉJÀ VU a sci-fi thriller that feels more emotionally grounded than its defiantly implausible premise lets on. The secret may be Denzel Washington, who is a strong enough presence in any film to make the unbelievable feel believable.