In this tense and twisty thriller, our narrator and central figure is Chris (the stunning Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a one-time high school hockey star and dreamboat who was brain-damaged in a car crash on prom night. Now, he works as the night janitor in a bank and goes to life skills classes to practice “sequencing” and tone down the “disinhibition” that allows him to make inappropriate comments to his pretty caseworker. At night, while he is at work, a friendly cop comes by to bring him donuts and sometimes he plays janitor hockey with his mop and thinks about how much he wants to be “who I was.” The hardest part of sequencing is finding a way to move his own story forward.
“I wake up,” he says. “I shower. With soap.” But is that before shaving or after? And “I cry sometimes” — is that supposed to be there? Chris has a little notebook for writing everything down to make sure he gets the sequences right.
But the sequences don’t seem to be right. He has the patient guidance of Lewis (Jeff Daniels), the blind roommate he met at the life skills center. And he has the confused affection of his wealthy family. They have kept his old room the way he left it, filled with trophies and the wheelchair from rehab folded up in the corner. His father still expects him to play chess. They seem to have more trouble than he does sequencing him into his future.
And then Chris meets Gary (Matthew Goode), who remembers him the way he was and doesn’t seem to think he’s changed much. Gary introduces him to Luvlee (Isla Fisher of The Wedding Crashers) and she seems to think he’s pretty great the way he is. They show him a heady glimpse of himself as powerful, wanted, friended by people who see no reason to feel sorry for him.
And capable of…something adventurous and dashing? Gary wants to rob a bank. The one where Chris and Barney Fife have donuts every night. Has Chris missed a step in his sequence and gotten himself into a situation he can’t sequence himself out of?
The genre of the “impaired narrator” provides instant interest for audiences, who must try to guess what is going on based on limited information from the character who is telling it. Of course, writers always dole out information in a highly controlled way. But this personification of narrative control creates a puzzle that immediately makes our involvement more intense and alert.
Gordon-Levitt is the real deal, a fascinating performer who creates the pre-crash Chris so compellingly in a few brief moments that we can miss him — and glimpse him under the slightly scrambled version he becomes. We’ve seen too many showboat-y performances by actors who love to play the look-at-me-act-with-one-hand-behind-my-back award-bait disabled roles. But Gordon-Levitt and Daniels give us characters who happen to have some disabilities, fascinating for who they are, not for what they can and cannot do. And Goode is…great. In the past relegated to playing the cute English guy with the cute English accent in movies like Match Point and Chasing Liberty, here he is as silky and menacing as a cougar. First-time director Scott Frank makes the most of his own tightly-written script, never neglecting character for action. He makes our hearts pound, but he also makes us care.
Parents should know that this movie has very mature material, including explicit and graphic peril and violence, with many characters injured or killed. Characters use very strong language, drink, smoke, and use drugs. Many of the characters are criminals who threaten, bully, cheat, and steal. There are sexual references and situations, including nudity. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of disabled characters who are capable and dedicated.
Families who see this movie should talk about “sequencing,” and why it is important for the characters and in storytelling. How does the structure of this movie help to make that point?
Audiences who enjoy this film will also enjoy Memento. They will also enjoy other outstanding tense thrillers like A Simple Plan, Shallow Grave, and Out of Sight, with a superb screenplay by this film’s writer-director.