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The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Director: Jonathan Demme
review by Alasdair Stuart
A decorated Gulf War hero is named as a surprise candidate for Vice President. His former commanding officer, himself suffering from 'Gulf War syndrome' is approached by a former colleague who later dies under mysterious circumstances. And all the while, Manchurian Global Investments quietly gain more and more control over the US power structure...
One of the greatest pieces of cold war paranoia ever produced seems an unlikely vehicle to launch an attack against modern US corporate culture and politics but that's exactly what Jonathan Demme does with this remake. It works beautifully too, the idea of the unseen enemy fitting rather too well around the shadowy investment and lobbying group that replace the Chinese in this version.
This is probably the bleakest mainstream movie you'll see this year and that becomes clear from the opening sequence. Denzel Washington's Ben Marco is transformed from a highly competent and efficient commanding officer to a man who is constantly ill at ease in the time it takes the film to go from the disastrous first Gulf war ambush to the present day. Washington is an actor with natural authority at the best of times but here, just as in his Oscar-winning role in Training Day, he turns that authority on its head. An actor whose presence onscreen is almost synonymous with integrity and nobility is transformed into a brittle, near hysterical man who knows that he's onto something but is never quite sure what. It's a spiky, troubled performance that suits the film perfectly and is amongst the actor's best work.
The real standout here though, and in many ways the hero of the piece, is Liv Schreiber as Raymond Shaw. Shaw is a genuinely tragic figure, a good man despite himself who finds himself at the mercy of forces he could never hope to understand or control. Schreiber plays him pitch perfectly, with absolute confidence and an absolute lack of trust in his mother and her plans. It's an incredibly smart piece of plotting, having the figure who is ostensibly the villain, knowing almost everything at the start of the film and it's made even more effective by his interactions with Marco. There's a constant struggle for control between the two men, the former commanding officer and the Vice Presidential candidate and their exchanges are amongst the best scenes in the film. In fact, one of the film's finest moments comes towards the end when the two men meet in a secure location and Marco learns the one piece of the puzzle he never knew. It's a fascinating and chilling turn of events that puts everything you've seen before in a whole new light and gives the final 20 minutes a real sense of danger.
The triangle of core performances is completed by Meryl Streep as Shaw's mother; in a performance based, at least visually, on Margaret Thatcher, Streep is extraordinary. Her Eleanor Shaw is a woman who lives her life through her son, her attachment to him and willingness to put him through hell both contradictory and chilling to behold. She's the least physically imposing of the three leads but is far and away the most dangerous and her scenes with Schreiber are the only ones to outshine Schreiber and Washington's exchanges. In Streep's hands, Eleanor Shaw becomes a monster far more disturbing than anything created in the minds of Marco's soldiers.
Demme's film is a cold, bleak affair that these three horribly broken people fit into perfectly. Shot in greys and blues with very occasional dashes of colour, it's a world in which Marco and Shaw move in a near dream-state. The film's most chilling moment comes from this, as Shaw takes a phone call from his controllers and calmly walks across his apartment and through a false wall to the control room next door. There he's checked over by medical technicians, given a clean bill of health and has his newest orders implanted. In the space of a minute, the fears of Marco and the others are not only made real but we're shown exactly what they are.
The script is full of moments like this with the dreams the two men particular standouts. As a result, the film has a tone that falls somewhere between The Prisoner and All The President's Men as each successive level of paranoid fantasy is presented in a calm, matter of fact way. It's not perfect, Elise's character in particular not quite sitting right with the rest of the film but overall this is a superior, fantastically acted and extremely grim conspiracy thriller. Highly recommended.
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