Tuesday, August 13, 2013

No One Lives (2012)

(Warning: Spoilers abound!)

Because their dumbest member Flynn (Derek Magyar) wants to prove himself after he needlessly (and dangerously) shot someone he really didn't need to kill, a backwoods clan of low-level criminals and toughs comes into possession of the car of two passing travellers in some kind of strained relationship - and, in another idiocy nobody approves of, of the travellers themselves. The situation doesn't improve at all when the female half of the couple (Laura Ramsey) uses a knife held at her throat as an opportunity for suicide. The man (Luke Evans) turns out to be a rather effective and brutal serial killer (though he sees himself as something more than just a mere serial killer, who are like kittens to his panther), and now a very angry one at that.

He is certainly not less angry once he realizes that the clan has found Emma (Adelaide Clemens), the young millionaire's daughter who was famously abducted some time ago while fourteen of her friends were slaughtered, hidden in his car. Things could still turn out okay for the crooks if they'd just do what Emma tells them to, namely to run at once and give her to the police. As it goes with people who have been tougher than anyone they ever met, the clan think they can cope with anything a single guy could throw at them, and decide to keep Emma and blackmail some money directly out of her father. They only realize too late that there's always somebody more dangerous somewhere, and they have just met him. In fact, Emma is the only person around on his level, which might be exactly what the killer wants her to be.

I think I have repeatedly aired my dislike for No One Lives director Ryuhei Kitamura's films. I may even have compared the experience of watching one of his movies to watching a monkey masturbate in slow motion, with added whooshing noises. Yes, I didn't even like Versus. So cover me surprised to realize I would describe No One Lives as great, bordering on brilliant.

Absolutely gone is Kitamura's tendency to overemphasise needlessly flashy directing tics and blunder his audience into submission by empty gestures of what's supposed to be coolness. In No One Lives, every edit, every camera movement is in service of the movie, not of stroking the director's ego via technical achievements. In fact, Kitamura leaves many of his most favourite directing tricks nearly completely in the bag, instead trusting in his ability to keep his audience interested with excellent pacing, a decidedly non-stupid script by David Cohen, and even - this has always been a particular weak spot in Kitamura's films - decent acting. Particularly the way Luke Evans turns his bland pretty boy looks into something frightening, and the way Adelaide Clemens projects complicated feelings via body language are remarkable, but even someone like America Olivo (whom I'd never have suspected of it) shows actual acting chops. Of course, we are talking about acting in the context of a horror thriller here, not a naturalistic piece about the troubles of academics, but I'm not going to complain when performances are exactly as they should be.

It's also a first in a Kitamura movie to find the director actually trusting in the performances, giving the actors just enough room to work, without getting distracted by a need to make a thousand edits a second or swirling his camera around while bullets fly in slow-motion. In this film, the director seems absolutely concentrated, using his (always unquestionably high) technical proficiency to tell a simple yet clever story excitingly. He does this much more efficiently than I ever would have expected.

It does help that Cohen's script does some rather clever things with the way it plays with the slasher and the larger "serial killer on the rampage" genres he's working in, without ever forgetting to add enough blood and gore to satisfy the baser needs of his audience. I'm not quite convinced of the film's ending, though. I see where it is going with it thematically, yet I don't think the ending as it actually happens is as satisfying as the rest of the narrative. But then I always want to see the final girl in these films win completely under her own powers and (unrealistically) not end up psychologically damaged beyond repair.

That minor quibble aside, No One Lives is quite an achievement. Suddenly, I'm even looking forward to Ryuhei Kitamura's next movie.

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