Guy Pearce anchors twisty thriller that can’t quite stick on landing

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Right from the start, “The Infernal Machine” paints a promising picture with its impressive mastery of atmosphere, mood, and tone. The dusty, faded grays and shadow-drenched interiors evoke the work of cinematographer Sara Deane, who mixes evocative close-ups (several clever shots and even the blocking in the aspect ratio repeatedly suggest that the walls close around Bruce Cogburn) with constant reminders of the barren, empty desert choking our advance. Director Andrew Hunt quickly establishes the familiar pattern of behavior that Cogburn falls into, finding inventive new ways to stage his countless phone calls to the mysterious DuKent as his eroded sense of privacy and security give way to the sniper rifle target practice, a new dog to give him advance warning of intruders, and ultimately culminate in a drunken fit that precedes the film’s heavier, more slumped final act.

The introduction of Alice Eve’s energetic cop Laura Higgins temporarily livens up what could have sounded like a tense solo play, as do various flashbacks to Cogburn’s years as a creative writing teacher. Yet even here the writing tends to rely on on-the-nose parallels (“Who am I?” he asks his students rhetorically, before launching into an impassioned discourse on the “fundamental question” that the protagonist of any story must wrestle with at the end of their arc) that further connect with the former writer’s haunted past, leading him to seek solitude in the middle of nowhere.

The story gets a perfectly timed boost of energy when Cogburn’s misguided attempt to ingratiate himself with his stalker leads to escalating stakes and threats, but the expanded scope of the central conflict can’t quite redeem the worst. screenplay instincts.

As the concluding act unfolds and Hunt finally begins to unravel the secrets at the heart of the story (some excruciatingly obvious, some a bit more off-screen; all of which are too crucial to spoil here), it becomes clear and ominous that no ending could live up to the potential built up to this point. For much of the film, Guy Pearce brilliantly enriches this piece with melancholy, thrilling, and genuinely unsettling morality from an author whose one-shot wonder may not be all it seems. The final conclusion, sadly, negates much of that goodwill in pursuit of a shocking but ill-conceived climax.

“The Infernal Machine” is poised to balance its lofty goals with its guiltier inclinations for fun, but even the fully dedicated lead can’t save this film from itself.

/Movie rating: 5 out of 10

“The Infernal Machine” will be available in select theaters and on digital on September 23, 2022.


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