OK, first off! - 100% spoiler free and containing 100% more actual Jamie Bamber than the ramble I'm about to post below ;) Above is a YouTube clip featuring a radio interview Jamie did earlier this week for John Doe: Vigilante. It's a good listen, nearly 15 mins long so check it out!
Anyone who follows the JBN Twitter might have noticed a couple of tweets that went out Wednesday; we were lucky enough to get to see the John Doe: Vigilante
screening & Q&A in LA last week. Well, when I say "we" I mean "me"; sadly, asta77
lives very far across the country, and the film isn't even playing in her state. The places where it is playing in CA are quite far for me, and I've been preparing for Emerald City Comicon for my job for the past couple of weeks so I was really grateful for the opportunity. (Road trip just wasn't happening.)
Since Main Street were kind enough to give us a chance to see the film, wanted to post a review; also since it's something we and many of you have been waiting a very long time for. (As is the case with indie films often, long gestation period; they shot this three years ago!) The thing is, though we've allowed spoiler filled reviews in the past I really don't want to post too many spoilers for this. I do feel like people should watch it unspoiled so that they can see how their reactions to various things pan out.
So here's an honest review that doesn't have spoilers in it per se, but singles out stuff I felt was worth noting. I do think the film is totally worth seeing if you have the opportunity particularly if you're a fan of Jamie's, and hopefully more of you can see if you feel the same/different soon!:
Here's the nutshell takeaway: I didn't love the film, I feel there's a lot in it that could be much stronger and other stuff that undercuts the impact it's attempting to make. That said, there were definitely things in it that I enjoyed very much, some of which were surprising and unexpected given what I anticipated the film would be.
Let's start where you'd expect: Him w/ his name above the title. ;) By about 15 minutes into the film it's not hard to understand what appealed to Jamie about taking this role; while he has played menacing roles in the past (see: Outcasts, Dollhouse), he doesn't get to do it often and there's a lot here that probably took him outside his comfort zone, which is something actors (well the ones who are worth their salt, anyway) are keen to do. And he is pretty terrific throughout; outside of a few brief moments where the accent slips ever so much (he mostly nails it!), he runs an massive gamut from very tightly controlled and cagey to total emotional collapse. There is a confrontational setpiece in the middle which, I'll be honest, some aspects of it really bugged me but it's got nawt to do with Jamie, he's stunning in it. (So is the actor in it with him, Brendan Clearkin, but I can't tell you who he plays) The degree to which John Doe is constantly 10 steps ahead of everyone else does stretch the believability of the character as well, but because Jamie does have that quality that conveys thoughtfulness and intelligence, he helps mitigate that a fair amount. It's a strong turn for him, although I have to say that with a couple of exceptions, most of the cast are really very strong; they pulled an excellent crop of Aussie actors for the supporting roles.
One of the surprising things to me was exactly how many extended, dialogue-heavy scenes there are in comparison to most films in this genre; there are a lot of two-handers which give the film the intimate air of a play a lot of the time and I wasn't not expecting that at all. And on the night, I liked that aspect of it a lot because I liked the opportunity to watch the actors work without the mise-en-scene getting in the way which it does in a lot of thrillers. A few days after the fact, though, I can sort of reevaluate it and I do feel like a few of those scenes (whether it's the jailhouse interviews / Lachy Hulme's character, or all of his investigative interviews along the way) could really stand to be tightened up and complemented with one or two more strong set pieces. I would not jettison the talky scenes at all, like I said I did enjoy them!; just... balance. (There are, I admit, a few visually striking moments that work quite well. Usually the ones that aren't too effects-heavy, the budget shows on some of the effects stuff; it's a more effective film when it relies on what it has to work with that's actually in the frame.)
Also, I think Steve Coates' script definitely has an ambitious slate of ideas and thoughts that it delivers to an audience to ponder as the story moves along, but sometimes the dialogue isn't always as finessed as it could be. To put it into context, I really do appreciate that the film doesn't come down too strongly on one side of the debate about vigilantism or the other, and it offers a lot of pretty extreme scenarios of that argument spiraling out of control; thing is, if you are going to be ambivalent in that sense then really cracking dialogue goes a long way toward satisfying the audience while leaving them to their own devices to decide how they felt about the film. Also I did feel several times as though portions of the script were too prone to putting exposition into characters' mouths and that's frequently a pet peeve of mine. Again, most of the actors in the film are good enough that they manage to accomplish a lot regardless.
I do have a couple of characterization-related beefs I need to point out, one of which involves the female characters. Insomuch as True Detective has gotten a just plain ridonkulous amount of ink written about it lately, one of the key criticisms of that show (which also explores dark themes that involve horrific crimes) is how the female characters are portrayed. Not only as primarily victims but sometimes oversexualizing them, portraying them as scolds, etc. (For some good reading on that, go have a look at Willa Paskin in Slate, Mo Ryan at HuffPo and Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker.) John Doe actually doesn't transgress in the last two areas there, but as far as portraying all the major female characters as victims... yep, pretty much. There are key minor roles that don't, sure. But it would actually have been refreshing to see some women turn up in places you wouldn't expect; for example, there are women at the Speak 4 the Dead rallies in the film but we never actually see a woman among those who are going out with copycat John Doe masks on and fighting back. And there's no reason why they can't be there; it would be really affecting if they were, to be honest. Additionally, there's at least one major character played by a man who would have been reeeally interesting if that person were female, but I don't actually want to say who that is until I can discuss associated spoilers.
That said, two of the most effective performances in the film are by actresses: One, Erin Dewar, plays a woman shown interacting with John Doe at his job (can't say what that is without giving away a significant spoiler, either) and she's terrific. Also worth nothing, that scene one of Jamie's strongest moments, too; it might be my favorite scene in the film. The other is the actress who plays John Doe's wife, Mary, she's called Brooke Ryan and there is one scene midway through the film in which she is - I'm not exaggerating on this one - heartwrenchingly excellent.
The other thing that I found frustrating is that all of the criminals who are John Doe's victims (and later, victims of the copycat mob) are so clearly the worst sort of boo-hiss badguys that, for my own personal outlook on the themes, it undercuts the moral questions that the film is trying to pose. For me, personally, I'm pretty liberal and I don't believe in vigilantism at all; if you're going to make me question that, sure show me some clear-cut cases of really reprehensible criminals... but TBH, your case is stronger if you also take time to reflect on cases that are a stickier from a moral standpoint. I told myself I wouldn't make too many comparisions to other shows/films, but I really have to bring up Prisoners here; I didn't think that film was perfect either, particularly the last reel which was pretty wobbly narratively, but one thing it did amazingly well was give you a potential perpetrator (Paul Dano's character) who you truly have to question whether he is entirely aware or responsible for the horrible thing he might have done. And then, force you to think about whether you'd take action the way Hugh Jackman's character does given that information. I would have liked to have seen at least one perp in John Doe with that kind of really uncomfortable complexity to them.
Now, though I won't address specific spoilers there is one thing I do want to bring up in vague-ish terms: There is a HUGE twist in the last reel that, while structurally it pays off something that is set up early on, I don't think needs to be in the film at all really. I didn't feel like it connected with any of the other storylines in a significant way so, ultimately it felt like something that was done in order to really gobsmack the audience at the end and a little bit unnecessary. Also, now is probably the time to point out that yes, there are a few sequences in the film that are very violent, although I'll be honest... fewer than I expected, I've seen worse on any given episode of Game of Thrones. ;) It's more the intensity that is upsetting (though that's definitely the film's intent, and fair play to them); a couple of moment of violence are not specifically gory-bloody at all, but they're extremely hard to watch because they are depicted and shot so in a realistic way.
With regard to the film's ending: The spoiler-free version is "it works, and yet it doesn't." There is a key piece of information that the film chooses not to address at the end and I actually loved that because, ultimately, it proves to be irrelevant to where the story ends up. Though all the promo is about "is John Doe a hero or villain," in the end the film wants to remind you that the subject matter is bigger than just one man. Also, the final scene is open-ended in a way which in one sense, compliments that sense of "this issue, regardless of how you feel about it personally, has the potential to spiral far out of anyone's control." And that's pretty effective. But also, there is room for it to be interpreted in a slightly disingenous manner regardless of what the filmmakers' intentions were and that's a little bit "well, hmph." (There was a really interesting revelation about this in the Q&A by the way, if anyone's interested... )
I feel like dancing around spoilers like I did might have made some of what I just wrote VERY confusing. ;) Let's do this: Anyone who wants to read the spoiler-free version can do so here... but if you want to discuss some of what hinted at in more detail, we'll do so in the comments below. I'll tag anything that is a spoiler reply VERY clearly, so anyone who doesn't want to read it can avoid it. Cool?