Dog’s Movie House: “Spiral,” “Oxygen” Thrillers That Go In Different Directions!

First let’s take a look at “Spiral.” This film stars Chris Rock as detective Zeke Banks, a son of a legendary yet corrupt chief of police (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s something of a pariah for ratting out a fellow cop a few years prior. Banks is a good detective but he has some serious trust and anger issues. When he’s paired up with a rookie partner named Will (Max Minghella) the two are assigned to a case involving one of the famous Jigsaw Killer’s famous traps. It soon becomes apparent that a copycat is using the method’s of the late John Kramer (Jigsaw, for those of you who haven’t seen any of the films) to punish the corrupt members of Zeke’s precinct. It’s up to Banks and Will to catch the killer before the Jigsaw copycat finishes his murderous plan.

The film itself is okay as, on the plus side, the convoluted mythology of the previous films is jettisoned for a streamlined stand-alone story that pushes the franchise in potentially interesting new directions. On the bad side the script doesn’t do very well in establishing the characters as anything more than mere archetypes. There’s not a whole lot of depth going on here. The traps are fairly well done but there’s nothing as shocking as anything in the original or the second film’s crawl through the needles sequence. Thankfully none of the Saw films qualify as “torture porn” despite some of the gore: they are actually morality tales with Jigsaw (or his surrogates) serving as a twisted arbiter of justice.

As for the performances, Rock is really good at portraying simmering anger. In a better written part Rock’s character could have been a flawed horror protagonist for the ages. The trouble is that the screenwriters like to either write for Rock as a comedian or let him riff. The result is that several scenes feel like slightly adjust standup routines. It’s not nearly as obvious as his role in “Lethal Weapon 4” but it’s still there. Jackson is serviceable as Rock’s father, but again he’s not given much to do beyond serve a key piece of the narrative. Minghella is given the most complex role as the rookie partner, but there’s something lacking in the impact of his arc that should be more revelatory given his place in the story. Otherwise his performance is fine. The other characters are merely cannon fodder and don’t register much beyond how creatively they can be killed. Overall, “Spiral” is not the worst addition to the Saw series and Rock’s character is definitely worth exploring, but the film’s mediocre writing keeps it from being in the top tier of the franchise. 3 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer!

Next we have a Netflix gem called “Oxygen” It’s from noted horror director Alexandre Aja but it’s not strictly a horror film. It’s a suspense thriller involving a woman who wakes up sealed in a cryo-chamber with no memory of how she got there. What’s worse is that a malfunction in the cryo-pod has vented enough oxygen that she will die unless she can escape. Revelations abound as this woman finds out her identity and tries to discover why she’s there. The answers are very, very cool.

First off, this film doesn’t succeed without the dazzling performance of Melanie Laurent (“Inglorious Basterds”). This is basically a one woman show with other characters only being shown in brief flashback sequences. Laurent sells it all, both the horror and fleeting hope as the dire nature of her situation becomes clear. Her only companion is a medical AI known as MILO, as well as voices from a couple of phone calls.

Aja’s direction is spot on here, filling every scene with suspense and dread. The story moves along without ever feeling rushed and I found myself on the edge of my seat the entire time. The effects are fine but minimal until much later in the movie, when the scope of the film widens just a bit. But such a reveal is still in service to the twists and turns of the film and the narrative does a much better job of keeping you in suspense than the more publicized “Spiral” film.

Of the two thrillers, “Oxygen” is the one to see this weekend as it has an original premise and a thrilling, claustrophobic atmosphere as well as one of the best performances by Melanie Laurent ever in a science fiction film. She is truly a marvel here. Don’t miss this one on Netflix. (Oh, and the English dubbing is excellent, by the way. . .no distraction at all.) 4 Out Of 5 On Kendog’s Barkometer! So Sayeth The Kendog!

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