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Ghost in the Machine 

In an otherwise machine-tooled Hollywood production, rare moments of genuine feeling shine through "Angel Eyes"

Watching a contemporary Hollywood movie is like watching an assembly line in action. A series of pre-cut images passes by for our inspection and approval, producing a tedium occasionally interrupted by the image that fails to conform to specification, the glitch that disturbs the assembly line's otherwise relentless progress. These interruptions signal moments when the movie ceases to be purely mechanical and suddenly, quite astonishingly, addresses the audience. The irregularity itself can be a slight event--a gesture, a change in the weather, a location, a look--and the fact that it resists our understanding is what makes it so compelling. In Angel Eyes these are the moments where this otherwise run-of-the-mill thriller suddenly becomes moving.

The film opens with an epilogue of sorts in which a police officer, Sharon (played by Jennifer Lopez), rescues someone trapped in a car that is being demolished after a crash. The identity of the person is unknown because Lopez plays directly to the camera, which takes the viewpoint of the crash survivor. Although this device is a fairly conventional one, other aspects of the scene are not. An abrupt shift divides the scene, for instance, between a gloomy, cloud-covered sky in the early evening to a lacerating late-night downpour. It's notable also that Lopez is the only emergency worker we see, since the typical way of staging a scene like this is to show a chaotic throng of police officers, firemen and paramedics, bathed in a kaleidoscope of flashing lights. This unusual opening sets the tone for the rest of the film, which is ostensibly about a breakdown of human relations.

Sharon works as a police officer in the high-crime district of a city. In the course of arresting drug dealers, chasing down armed criminals and breaking up fights, she exhibits an intense anger that doesn't seem commensurate with the situation at hand. Our puzzlement over her behavior is soon answered when we learn that Sharon is estranged from her family, and that her emotional problems have something to do with this. We are latterly shown that she lives alone, in an IKEA-furnished apartment, where from time to time a train lumbers by.

In the same neighborhood, Catch (played by Jim Caviezel), the mysterious man she has rescued at the beginning of the film, inhabits his own solitary existence. A romance develops between the two in fits and starts, setting in motion the standard storyline in which two strangers brought together by chance redeem each other's sins through love. In true Hollywood fashion, the movie locates the characters' unhappiness in a specific instance of trauma set in their respective pasts. The train, ever lumbering by, with each chug and clank reminds us of the mechanical nature of these events.

While the movie tracks a familiar course in most respects, it nevertheless evokes a paralytic loneliness that defines the characters' lives. In fact, the clichéd unfolding of the redemption plot seems to be directly related to the gradual building of the movie's melancholic affect. The movie also presents a more complicated view than one might expect from a Hollywood film about the possibility of helping another person to overcome trauma. By treating this aspect of the plot ineptly, the film inadvertently reveals the inherent limitations of this project. In fairly oblique ways, we become aware that the characters' isolation from one another is due to something more profound than mere circumstance. The characters are also cut off from the usual sources of transcendence, such as God, which is suggested by a location or details in the setting. A throw-away scene takes place in a demolished church, for instance, and in almost every domestic interior some incongruous religious icon has been haphazardly placed: a pop Christ painted by a third-rate Warhol, a miniature Buddha statue situated on a suburban shrine, a Mother and Child reproduction hanging beside family portraits.

The movie's visual style is defined by the odd peculiarity within an overall landscape of hackneyed technique. Angel Eyes makes liberal use of the kind of shots, common in Hollywood movies, that are motivated by the need to appear up-to-the-minute. A number of pointless overhead shots give a bird's-eye view on the most banal actions, while tracking shots constantly circle around groups of characters, as if delirium were proof of skillfulness. And the clumsy way in which the scenes are cut together suggests a refusal to intuit any organic relation between the scenes, in favor of a more "stylish," abrupt rhythm. Like the plot, with its narrative ambiguities following from an unintentionally confusing design, the lack of a unified style adds to the movie's allusiveness--and its elusiveness.

The rich surface of Angel Eyes resembles a European art film, albeit a more slick and uniform one, which is not by itself atypical. This follows a trend in recent Hollywood movies, often used in supernatural thrillers like last year's Lost Souls. But here, Piotr Sobocinski's photography is distinguished from other examples. There is a way in which his somber images, realized in elegant shades of dark blue, gray, maroon and deep green, seem both heavy and fragile. Their oppressive weight contributes to the languor of the rest of the movie, and it's tempting to read their delicateness in terms of a threat to the film image itself: The images seem to deliberately exploit film's potential for high tonality--a dramatic separation of light and dark--which is something video is hard-pressed to duplicate.

One of the more inscrutable features of Angel Eyes is its strange combination of genres--suspense thriller, romantic comedy, family melodrama--which has the benefit of allowing the audience to choose more freely its position in relation to the action, or to choose multiple positions. Often, the various conventions circulating on the screen collide, reducing the action to an inert state. To their credit, the movie's stars consent to perform within this static framework rather than work against it. Jennifer Lopez brings her distinctive blend of stoicism and pained warmth to the movie, and proves it's still a potent combination. When she faces the camera alone, she resembles the Madonna del Parto in Piero della Francesca's famous painting. Like the Madonna, Lopez looks out at the audience without any sense of coyness or embarrassment, facing us with a severe and melancholy pride that perfectly suits her character.

When Jim Caviezel wanders into the frame for the first time, his appearance is remarkable for its utter opacity and austere beauty. Both of these features lend themselves well to the scripted character he plays--a handsome cipher who sleeps in an empty room and spends his day performing small acts of goodwill (like delivering groceries to a woman who may or may not be his mother, played by Shirley Knight). There's not a single actor in contemporary Hollywood quite like Caviezel. He is less a performer within an image, more an image or a performance himself. With his long forehead, lean features, closed lips and blank stare, he resembles the stylized, rigid, hieratical figures in Byzantine icon paintings--far from the world of verisimilitude and sensation. All of this, combined with the camera's relaxing influence, contributes to the impression of Caviezel as a modern-day saint.

While Angel Eyes is operating at a number of levels, it's the film's potential appeal as passive entertainment for a middle-brow audience that's ultimately highlighted. But there are enough odd details and irregular moments here to signal another level--not fully realized by the filmmakers--where genuine feeling resides. This dimension of the film could be described as a dream about the historical past, a dream--if one dare risk the analogy--about the late Middle Ages. Consider the movie's vision of a pervasive instability that disables human connections; the dialogue between Christian and Eastern elements within the frame; the way in which people gravitate toward clans--either their actual family or a surrogate, like the brotherhood of the police or a gang; the preoccupation with psychological insecurity, which is worked out in the tension between the characters and the hostile landscape they inhabit; the nods to mysticism and ascetic life; the conception of romance, rooted in chivalry. In this dimension of the film, we find ourselves at the brink of a kind of longed-for Renaissance. And from this vantage point, we begin to account for the striking intensity of the movie's final shot: a frozen image of Sharon and Chance, looking forward, half-smiles on their weary faces. EndBlock

  • Jennifer Lopez's new movie is a routine thriler that nevertheless provides moments of true feeling.

More by Thomas Schur

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