Monday, July 20, 2009

P2 - a lesson in tension and two-handing

I'm a sucker for "two-hander" movies - films with two characters stuck in a confined location with each other for the duration of the film as the tension between them builds. First, they're budget conscious - usually you only need one location, two principle actors and occasionally a few peripheral day players. That can always help in netting buyers. Hard Candy is one of my favorite examples of such a movie that used these factors to its advantage. Though the scope is slightly wider in each of these, both Misery and Red Eye follow similar formulas too.

Second, they have the potential to lead to great character work - after all, if you're stuck with just two characters for 90 minutes or so, they'd better be damn compelling characters. More often than not, one character wants to do harm to another character. Not only does that add tension on a physical level, but also on an emotional level. For example, if the whole film is about a normal person somehow trapped in a confined space with a psycho, we're going to spend the entire movie wondering when the psycho is going to snap, and just what will set them off. It's like watching a ticking time bomb without being able to read the numbers on the counter.

The issue between the characters need not be that one is crazy. Perhaps one has a deep secret that they don't want the other to know. Perhaps the setting of the film is a police interrogation room and the determined cops have just 24 hours to break down their lead suspect in a brutal murder, as in the Homicide season one episode, "Three Men & Adena."

(By the way, Netflix that episode immediately. And if you have time watch all four episodes at the start of that season that lead up to it.)

All of this explains why I was eager to check out 2007's P2, and it has almost nothing to do with the fact that Rachel Nichols ("Alias," Star Trek, G.I. Joe) was starring it it.

Okay, maybe a little bit... but can you blame me?

P2 is set on Christmas Eve, and actually starts slowly. The opening title sequence shows the camera moving slowly closer to a car trunk, with the scene reaching its climax as a woman's arm finally succeeds in breaking out from within. Regular readers of this column will know that I usually rail against this kind of flash-forward opening, but here it's surprisingly effective. Writers Franck Khalfoun, Alexandre Aja, and Gregory Levasseur know to show the audience just enough to tease the direction of the film without giving anything away. All we really know is that at some point, a woman is going to get locked in a car trunk. We don't know by whom, or the circumstances that surround it.

We meet Rachel Nichols, playing as a businesswoman named Angela, working late at the office on Christmas Eve. After an awkward encounter with a co-worker who sexually harassed her at the company holiday party, she goes down to the parking garage to find that her car won't start. This leads her to solicit some help from a security guard named Tom (played by Wes Bentley). When that proves fruitless, she decides to call for a cab, declining the guard's offer to join him for a meal. He's friendly, but still somewhat off-putting. However, when the cab arrives, she finds she's locked in the building. Worse, as she attempts to get help, she finds herself trapped in the complete darkness of the parking basement - and gets chloroformed by Tom.

The opening is a little slow - it takes about 20 minutes to get to the point where Rachel is knocked out - but the atmosphere helps foster the tension. Tom is shown voyeuristicly watching her about 15 minutes in the film, just after she turns down her offer for a meal together. The film - and the script - walk the fine line of making Tom seem socially awkward with hints of creepiness, without going too far into the latter. Something's clearly not right with this guy, but there's nothing one can put a finger on.

When she wakes up, Tom has redressed her in a tight, cleavage-bearing white dress, and shackled her to a chair in his security office. Offering her dinner, he speaks to her in an off-puttingly pleasant fashion, almost as if they're old friends or lovers, telling her she needs to make time for herself. I liked that the script didn't turn him into a raving lunatic from the start. The fact that he's chained her up and clearly undressed her is creepy enough on his own. If anything, his genial nature makes the whole situation more creepy. It's like he's trying really hard to win her over, and that makes him less predictable than a guy who's just holding her captive with plans to either rape or dismember her.

It also gives the slight hope that Angela might be able to talk her way out of this. Even as Tom makes her call her parents and explain that she won't be home, there seems to be the thin hope that she can make him see reason and get out of this without any violence. Indeed, it takes 45 minutes for the first true violence, when Tom beats up and brutally murders the co-worker who came onto Angela. This is pretty much the point where it becomes clear that there will be no reasoning with Tom. I like that the violence in this film is rare, making it feel all the more brutal when it does happen. It's like what Hitchcock used to say about the anticipation of the bomb exploding being more effective than the actual explosion.

Angela manages to flee into the parking garage and the second half of the film is a cat-and-mouse game, with all the expected close calls. At one point, Angela traps herself in an elevator to stay away from Tom, and he responds by flooding the place, forcing her out. Then later, some cops come to check out the place - as a tasered Angela is recaptured and locked in a car trunk.

Another interesting point about this scene - the cops clearly seem to get the vibe that something's not right with Tom. As they search the place, it's evident that their gut is telling them something is horribly off, but they can't find anything amiss. A lesser film would have made the cops bumbling types who wouldn't recognize a corpse if they tripped over it. This is the more interesting way of dealing with that scenario.

The third act jumps the rails slightly as the stunts get a bit more over-the-top, but all in all, I like the way the script builds up. The first twenty minutes set the scene, making it evident just how isolated Angela will be in the parking garage. The next 25 minutes play off of that, showing just how much Angela is at Tom's mercy, even as she tries to bargain for her release. Then, the second act descends into more slasher-movie territory, even as the pressure mounts. It seems that there's nowhere for Angela to run.

However, there are a few issues with it. A major problem is that Angela's character has no real arc. We don't know much about her other than the fact that her whole life is her job. In some ways, that makes it easier for her to disappear without anyone thinking anything of it, but other than that there's really no depth to her role as written. Nichols is the film's bright spot, and she does what she can, winning a lot of audience sympathy in the process, but it's not as if this circumstance leads to any deep epiphany or character catharsis.

This leads to my second big issue - the ending has Angela brutally murdering Tom in a situation where she easily could have left him alive and allowed the cops to take him away. His death is gratuitous and the circumstances can no way be considered self-defense. It leaves blood on Angela's hands, and simply feels wrong. If she had a stronger character arc, perhaps this ending would have made a better statement.

Is P2 a great movie? No, and it seems most critics weren't fans. Though Roger Ebert gave it three stars when it came out, and it holds at 35% freshness on the Rotten Tomatoes scale. It also made less than $4 million domestically when it came out. However, there's great potential in the film, and it's worth a look. I'd invite my readers to check out the film via Netflix and consider how they would have improved on the script's flaws.


  1. doesn't really pertain to this topic, but... how long will it typically take for coverage to come back at a big-five agency on a screenplay submitted by an established MP Talent rep (not Lit) as a favor for a friend (me, an unproduced writer)...? so that one would know when it is prudent to follow up with their contact regarding thoughts on the project... thanks, keep up the bloggin' -

  2. A good rule of thumb is to always give it at least four weeks. This time of year, odds are there are fewer submissions, but due to vacations, the readers and agents might be less available. I would think that six weeks would be the absolute longest it should take.

  3. thank you for your quick response

  4. I enjoyed P2, although it's been a while since I saw it so can't remember exactly what I did and didn't like about it. I agree with your points on Angela's story arc and though I quite liked the ending I think you're right in saying it would have been more justified with a stronger arc. I think my main problem was with Tom's character - I think he starts off as quite a believable psycho but descends into horror movie caricature by the end, although that might be a performance note rather than a script issue.

  5. I can understand your issue with Tom, but I was willing to go along with the ride on that one. It would have added quite a bit to an already lengthy review, but I felt his motivations didn't quite track. I buy his descent if we assume the brutal murder at the 45 minute mark is where he completely snaps in the moment and everything he does after that is a reaction to that. I want to believe that in his own mind, he believes everything he feeds Angela early on about trying to help her.

    But the problem with that is then you probably have to assume that he didn't plan Angela's abduction far in advance and as just taking advantage of her predicament... and the fact that he killed the other security guard - presumably before Angela went to wait for the cab - pretty much flies in the face of that.

    To put it another way - I buy his all-out psycho by the end if the events of the film are what drive him there. If he's already THAT crazy at the start, and just REALLY GOOD at hiding it for the first 45 minutes, then the internal logic starts to collapse.