Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Factory

The Factory (2012)
Dir. Morgan O’Neill
Written by Paul Leyden, Morgan O’Neill
Starring John Cusack, Jennifer Carpenter, Dallas Roberts, Mae Whitman, Ksenia Solo

You gotta admire John Cusack’s commitment to taking chances. I mean, for every 2012 or HOT TUB TIME MACHINE he stars in, it seems like he takes three weirdo roles in small, otherwise obscure projects. He followed up the cutesy rom-com SERENDIPITY by playing a Jewish art dealer opposite Noah Taylor’s Young Hitler in MAX, followed MUST LOVE DOGS with THE ICE HARVEST, followed HOT TUB TIME MACHINE with SHANGHAI (which has never even been released in the U.S.), Lee Daniel’s crazy THE PAPERBOY, and... THE FACTORY, which was filmed in 2011 but no one ever bothered to release until now. In real life, his restless energy and interest in trying new things has led him to friendships with Joe Strummer and Hunter S. Thompson, earned him a 6th-level black belt in kickboxing, and given him a platform for his progressive politics on issues ranging from freedom to the press to the Obama administration’s drone program. Sometimes it pays off in the movies too; MAX is one of my personal favorite underseen films, ICE HARVEST is a great latter-day Harold Ramis neo noir, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH is still a masterwork of unparalleled madness. But more often it pays off with embarrassing crap like THE FACTORY.

THE FACTORY follows the tradition of the apparently endless parade of serial killer police procedurals which trail THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, in that it’s the story of an obsessed cop trying to hunt down a skeezy weirdo who’s been kidnapping prostitutes and (mild spoiler) chaining them in his basement, forcing them to call him daddy and pump out babies. Our bedraggled, underappreciated hero Mike Fletcher (Cusack) was already fixated on solving this to the exclusion of his own life and problems, so you can imagine how well he takes it when his own daughter becomes the latest victim.

Oh yeah, I forgot, Dexter's sister is in there too.

There’s nothing spectacularly wrong with the movie, it’s just a not-interesting-enough basic idea which is then dragged down by a bunch of bad choices. Not bad enough to be fun, unfortunately, just bad enough to squander whatever potential was left. It does take place in Buffalo, NY, though. Not too many serial killer movies set up there. So that’s something.

The first bad idea they made here was thinking this baby farming asshole Gary (Dallas Roberts, Milton from Walking Dead) was interesting enough to make a movie about. I mean, unless you have a really fucking good hook for your police procedural film, a serial killer movie is gonna live or die on the strength of the villain. I don’t know if they just didn’t notice, or were trying to go for gritty realism as a tribute to the “actual events” this was supposedly “inspired by” (those actual events being "well, there is a police department in Buffalo, New York") or what, but this Baby Factory idea is pretty weak sauce by serial killer standards. I’m not saying I think he’s a nice guy or anything, but in the ever-escalating game of serial killer gimmicks this guy Gary just seems like a greasy loser, not even colorful enough to be interesting. In fact it’s even kind of a misnomer to call him a serial killer, since he’s really a serial kidnapper/rapist who just has to kill his victims sometimes because they try to escape. What a tiresome asshole. Milton does a perfectly fine job, but the whole scenario quickly kind of falls into that death zone for genre movies: unpleasant enough to not be fun to watch, not interesting enough for you to care.

Would you trust this man around your serial killer movies?

John Cusack, of course, is always fun to watch, so casting him was a good idea. Unfortunately, he’s cast in the most pointless role, as the detective trying to solve a mystery to which we already know the answer. Which is always a bad idea. Man, is there a quicker way to kill your movie than to have your protagonist spend the whole film trying to figure out what the audience already knew from the first scene? Short of casting Ryan O’Neal, I don’t know of one. For the viewer, there’s no doubt as to who the killer is, what he’s doing, how he’s doing it, or where he’s doing it. There is an element of minor curiosity as to why he’s doing it, but thankfully the movie never addresses that, sparing us the indignity of being mildly interested in some parts of an otherwise tepid paint-by-numbers. Cusack’s character is our protagonist, but all he does is freak out and look at pictures of people we already know and agonizingly slowly connect the obvious dots between the only three characters he ever learns about. This presents the same classic conundrum I had with the casting of Daniel Craig in the REMAKE WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO: our lead has the least interesting story, but he’s also the most compelling actor anywhere in sight. Bit of a conflict of interest there.

They try to up the tension for Cusack by pushing the depressing true fact (maybe that’s what they mean by “actual events?”) that if a missing person isn’t found within 48 hours, the odds are that they will never be found. This bit of trivia is found on the movie poster, in intertitle text at the start of the movie, and then explicitly stated aloud by the characters several times, so you can see why Mike is panicking so much, trashing his office, violating people’s civil rights, engaging in a few choice moments of mega-acting, and so on. Only trouble is, since we can also see what’s going on in the killer’s mind, we know that in this one particular case time is actually not a factor. Gary The Kidnapper/Killer wants to keep everyone alive and since Mike’s daughter is already pregnant the only real danger if they delay finding her is that she’s gonna miss more days of school. This is exactly the kind of bad decisions I’m talking about here. I mean, did no one see that you can’t have it both ways? It just makes it completely impossible to empathize with Cusack’s character, while also revealing nothing even vaguely interesting about the killer (who, again, is actually more of a kidnapper).

Cusack contemplating the better film that might have been,

You know what would have made this movie good? Cast Cusack as the killer. Unlike Milton’s squalid redneck mopiness, Cusack’s charisma might have actually made him a compelling psychopath. His natural nice-guy likability would go a long way towards making him a more complex, scary figure, and his commanding physical presence would help explain the near feverish Stockholm Syndrome developed by the kidnapped girls living in the basement of his inexplicably lavish suburban home. Cusack might have been able to get you to take seriously the idea that he really believed he was doing God’s work. That might have been good. Maybe for the remake, as a cheeky homage to the beloved original.

(UPDATE: Turns out I was right, he's great playing the killer in THE FROZEN GROUND for exactly the reasons I thought he would be, even though that one is also pretty dull overall.)

As it is, though, Gary The Serial Killer is just sort of a scrawny unbalanced prick, the kind who would uncomfortably talk to you about Jesus on the public transportation system but you would never really want to know more about or intentionally spend time with. So it figures that although the only compelling aspect of the movie is what happens in his house, it works better when he’s not around. In the basement, Cusack’s daughter Abby (Mae Whitman, "Her?" from Arrested Development and, holy cow, the president’s adorable daughter in INDEPENDENCE DAY!) has to adapt to a small family of emotionally disturbed kidnapping victims who have a nearly religious devotion to their new indoor-kitty lifestyle. There’s a desperate, survivalist quality to the performances which, unlike most of the movie, actually rings true. All three females down here do a pretty great job with the complex emotions of these sequences, particularly the antagonistic Ksenia Solo (who played “Veronica” in BLACK SWAN) and Whitman, who manages to actually look and act like a genuine teenager while still doing a bunch of ridiculous serial-killer-movie bullshit. With three women locked together in a creepy basement, I thought this one would score a Bechdel test win for sure, but somehow they always end up talking about Gary or Mike. Fuckin’ figures.

Even Mae Whitman here, who does not have an overwhelming surplus of film roles on her resume, does not list this film on her wikipedia page. Just sayin. 

With three pretty good performances in a mildly interesting scenario as well as some accomplished camerawork by Kramer Morgenthau* (who has fun finding glimmers of gaudy color in the snowy Montreal locations and Buffalo establishing shots), there might have been something to build on. But alas, most of the thing coasts along in the most predictable possible manner, treading water, wasting time and never even remotely attempting to mine anything interesting from its stock characters and trite premise. Throughout most of the runtime, there’s a palpable sense of “why bother?” which is resolved only at the end, when the movie finally manages to get interested enough in the proceedings to provide a little color in the form of an outlandishly laughable twist. The movie’s so threadbare that there’s only one possible twist they could go for, but the gusto with which they bring down the hammer is at least worth a chuckle. I’ve seen plenty of movies where they flash back to key scenes to show you how cleverly they’ve hidden clues in seemingly mundane dialogue. But this one may take the cake, flashing back to what may well be virtually every related scene in the entire runtime, and then draaaaaging out the epilogue to a sublimely silly final shot of a character smiling directly into the camera, looking evil.

Seriously though, I like the cinematographer's sparing but eye-catching use of color. I hope he goes on to make a real movie some day.

It’s not enough to save the film or to make it anywhere near worth recommending. Still, a final binge of stone-faced ludicrousness goes a long way, putting this nearly on par with THE RAVEN in terms of unwatchability instead of, say, a particularly uneventful root canal. But fans of Cusack’s more eccentric side take comfort: he’s playing Richard Nixon in Lee Daniel’s next film. Their last collaboration found time to have Nicole Kidman territorially piss on Zac Efron, so you can only imagine what he has in store for ol’ Tricky Dick. That forgives a lot, but maybe it’s also time to remind even a lifelong seeker like Cusack that maybe there are some things best left unexplored.

*DP veteran of other lame horror movies like GODSEND and FRACTURE, but more interesting as the grandson of FDR’s Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr.


  1. Liked your review. Just watched this movie ( unwillingly), and agree with what you've written. Also since I really cant stand the pointy - faced actress playing the cop, it was doubly obnoxious. John Cusack is not bad but he wasn't challenged enough in this movie. Oh, and throughout the * entire * movie, I kept asking my husband WHERE is this Serial-killing that is supposed to be going on?!!? Lol

  2. Have a completely changed view after reading this review. (Dare I admit i just voluntarily watched it three times now? ::facepalm:: ) I have to say that the Paperboy was great. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am too a fan of Cusack's performance in Being John Malkovich. Thank you for such an insightful, thorough review and breakdown of this flimsy film.

    1. Far be it from me to tell anyone what they should or shouldn't like! I've watched SOUTHLAND TALES multiple times, for heaven's sake, I'm in no position to tell anyone they're wrong for enjoying a movie of questionable artistic merit. But thank you for your kind words!