Easy Money (Daniel Espinosa, 2011): A propulsive, intriguingly divided tour of the Swedish underworld, this crime thriller whips up an intensely caffeinated frenzy without ever losing sight of its spiraling narrative. Adapted from Jens Lapidus’s novel Snabba Cash, the story follows a trio of desperate men linked by a looming drug shipment. While Spanish prison escapee Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) tries to keep the lines of communication flowing between supplier and the increasingly violent demandees, a weary Serbian enforcer does his best to intercept the goods. Their cat-and-mouse game takes on new levels with the introduction of J.W. (The Killing‘s Joel Kinnaman), a student whose frugal existence barely masks an intense need for the good life. When a chance encounter gives him an opportunity to lend his financial talents to the operation, he eagerly burrows into the muck. The title proves to be more than a little ironic for all concerned.
Initially, director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) takes a frantic Mixmaster approach to the material, throwing flash-forwards and backtracks together at a breathtaking rate. As the pivotal event draws closer, however, the film locks in and clamps down, with those early stylish flurries serving to illustrate the inexorable downward path of its main characters. Fans of Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma may find some familiar patterns sprinkled throughout, but Easy Money more than delivers on its own merits, telling a relentless morality tale that leaves its viewers winded without feeling ill-used. Like all good crime thrillers, it shows how simple it is to end up on the dark side of the street. (originally published at Amazon.com)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011): Powered by an amazing central performance by Elizabeth Olsen, this unstuck-in-time mood piece stands as the most unnerving kind of horror film: the sort where the unease builds and builds, without any easy resolutions. Olsen plays the multiple-named title character, a member of a remote commune held in the thrall of its leader (the excellent John Hawkes, deepening both the menace and charisma he displayed in Winter’s Bone). When she temporarily regains her senses and escapes, she ends up under the care of her sister (Sarah Paulson), a well-to-do newlywed who is understandably baffled by her sibling’s three-year disappearance. As Martha attempts to make sense of her new surroundings and come to terms with her past, she begins to receive menacing hints that her former friends may not be so willing to let her move on.
Writer-director Sean Durkin makes an astonishingly assured feature debut, moving between reality, fantasy, and memory with an unpredictable, hazy grace. Aided by a spooky sound design and some ominous camerawork, the filmmaker has fashioned a gripping puzzle of a movie, one where the out-of-order storytelling creates a whole greater than its parts. Viewers expecting a clear-cut narrative may well be frustrated by the paths that Martha Marcy May Marlene chooses to take, most notably in the final open-ended shot, which raises a number of potential unresolved questions without any answers. Those in a susceptible mood, however, may find moments from the film lingering in their consciousness for some time. The disc includes a memorably creepy song performed by Hawkes, a brief yet fascinating look at cult mechanics, and a haunting short by Durkin, which serves as a semi-prequel to the film. Be prepared for discussion afterwards. (originally published at Amazon.com)
Dark Horse (Todd Solondz, 2012): A lengthier-than-usual review for the Salt Lake City Weekly.