Owl a good story poorly told

There are few things in film more frustrating than a good idea poorly executed. Psychological thriller The Cry of the Owl practically oozes potential — and even manages to salvage some of it by the end — but it’s ultimately sunk by an awkward script and a flat lead performance.

The promise comes from the premise, based on a novel by Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley scribe Patricia Highsmith, whose work clearly can translate well on the big screen. Owl focuses on Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine), a soon-to-be-divorcee whose soul source of joy is spying on the seemingly idyllic home of Jenny Thierolf (Julia Stiles). Once she discovers him in the woods outside her house, the story immediately goes in unexpected directions — Jenny is altogether too receptive to Robert’s habit, and the relationship that develops between the two is more complex than you’d expect.

Unfortunately, writer-director Jamie Thraves doesn’t do that relationship justice. Owl is full of stilted, unnatural dialogue, delivered stiffly by a cast that’s capable of better. Casual conversations come off as awkward, while significant exchanges verge on hammy. Oddly enough, considering Thraves’s background in music videos, the visuals are curiously workmanlike — it’s good to see a former video director aiming for substance over flash, but a bit of razzle-dazzle might have made up for Owl’s other shortcomings.

Considine in particular is out of place — he seems to have stripped away his charisma along with his English accent. His Forrester is supposed to be depressed, maybe even on the verge of a mental breakdown, but he mostly just comes across as disinterested. He might be aiming for noir detachment, but a big part of what makes that aloofness work in other thrillers is the opportunity it provides for wry observation. Considine may be an outsider, but he doesn’t provide perspective; he just drifts from scene to scene.

Eventually, Owl starts to gather momentum despite itself. As the plot twists mount, the tension increases and it becomes easier to overlook the stiff acting to focus on the story. By the time it reaches its grim conclusion, the film is downright watchable, and with the last scene, the tone Thraves has been searching for throughout finally materializes. There’s a good movie to be made from Highsmith’s story — this just isn’t it.

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