Monday, October 22, 2018

Safe House (1998)

Directed by Eric Steven Stahl; produced by Sean McLain and Eric Steven Stahl

Mace Sowell (Patrick Stewart) lives in fear of assassins. He takes elaborate precautions, such as sleeping in a closet, while his bed is occupied by a look-a-like dummy. His house is protected by video cameras, lasers and locks, and his garden is screened by tall trees. He is also suffering from Alzheimer’s Syndrome, and is feeling the beginnings of dementia. He shoots live ammunition at moles in his lawn, he can’t remember people’s names, and has an elaborate computer system that may or may not cause severe destruction if not constantly updated. His only friends are the handyman (Craig Shoemaker) who stages ‘drills’ (war-game like scenarios) and a new care-taker/companion (Kimberly Williams). As his disorientation becomes worse, Sowell’s fantasy world begins to affect his real world more and more - but is it fantasy, and if not, how much isn’t?

About two fifths of the way through Safe House, I thought it a failure. There is too much humour - or attempts at humour - which doesn’t work. It was, perhaps, an attempt to divert attention from what may be the central plot-point. In fact, it merely gets in the way. Half-way through, the film hits its stride, discards most of the humour and concentrates on two aspects: Stewart’s increasing illness (and, through it, his relationship with Williams) and his fixation on a presidential candidate, which is connected with his delusions. After this point, the movie improves.

The story seeks to cloud the truth, as much as Stewart’s mind is clouded, and it does a good job of it, though the mystery did not keep me bewildered right to the end. There is frequently a point at which a plot gives away too much - it is usually the point at which more of the plot must be revealed in order to keep the story going, and writers must be very good, or very clever, not to give away too much. In this case, it is not information that provided the clue, but Stewart’s attitude toward another character. However, by then, the film has improved enough to keep the viewer interested to the end.

There are elements which may or may not have been deliberately included but which add to the puzzle. Stewart’s computer safeguards look amateurish. For instance, a list of alleged clandestine operators he has compiled is headed ‘Black Ops’; I chuckled at that, thinking that no government would actually list its agents under such a title. But then, it might be what a delusional man would believe a government would do. His computer system itself looks rather dated, but then, that might be the age of the movie.

Stewart and Williams carry the story, and both are very good. I am not one who thinks that Stewart is a versatile actor. But he can play certain roles very well, and he is successful here. Williams, too, shows that she’s more than a supporting player. Shoemaker provides comic relief; he is apparently an immensely successful stand-up comic and self-help author, the founder of a charity and a Broadway star. Safe House may have been early in his career…

While certainly not without its problems, Safe House does what it is supposed to do, providing interest and entertainment. After an unsuccessful first third or so, it will keep the viewer watching, and gives a satisfying, if not all together unexpected, climax.

1 comment:

  1. Movies with a theme of paranoia are generally interesting. I'll have to look this one up, although I'm guessing there's no feel-good ending.