Birds of a feather flock together this week, as I pull from the stacks two recent releases that a) have our feathered friends in their titles, b) are psychological thrillers, and c) went straight to DVD. (For reasons that soon become obvious.)
The Cry of the Owl has the pedigree, based as it is on a 1962 novel by Patricia Highsmith that was previously filmed by Claude Chabrol in 1987. Highsmith’s macabre novels were the basis of the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train (1951) and a number of films featuring her amoral con man Tom Ripley, including Purple Noon (1960), which was remade as The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and The American Friend (1977), which was revamped as Ripley’s Game (2002). If Chabrol couldn’t put it across (it’s one of the French master’s more obscure movies) I can’t quite figure out why anyone would want to redo The Cry of the Owl, the sort of book that I imagine clings stubbornly to the page.
Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles, supporting players in The Bourne Ultimatum, get star billing here. Considine was excellent in Jim Sheridan’s In America. Here, delivering an only passable accent through gritted teeth, he’s an American, Robert, who is unhappy and possibly a bit mad (think mid-70s Bruce Dern) as a painful divorce from Nickie (Caroline Dhavernas, a homefront gal in The Pacific) is finalized in New York. But the simple life in rural Pennsylvania proves not so simple when he develops an obsessive crush on the much younger Jenny (Stiles). In a twist, Jenny, who has boyfriend problems, welcomes the diversion; in another, Robert, after a fight with the fellow, seems to get rid of the boyfriend, and the resulting missing persons case aggravates cops and townspeople who are already suspicious of the sullen, cynical new arrival.
You’ll think you know where this is headed, then Highsmith throws a monkey wrench into our expectations with an unexpected development. I assume this was what drew Chabrol and now writer-director Jamie Thraves, best known for Blur and Radiohead videos, to the material. The author, though, could prepare us for this more meticulously, and make the portents add up less pretentiously. Having a character react to the screech of an offscreen owl with lines like ”It’s the symbol of death,” delivered with as straight a face as possible, is just this side of camp. This third-act surprise also removes the film’s strongest asset, acting-wise, from the deck, and the whole house of cards collapses as a cast made up mostly of anonymous Canadian actors mucks about in anonymous Canadian locations.
Thraves must have felt there was relevance lurking underneath this noir-ish storyline, something about the warping of relationships under stress and the oppressiveness of small towns, but entertainment is minimal, so it’s hard to give a hoot about The Cry of the Owl. Paramount Home Video certainly didn’t—other than a wan-looking anamorphic widescreen transfer there are no other extras.
With a cast that includes Ellen Page and Susan Sarandon, Peacock flies a little higher, but it, too, crashed onto DVD with little fanfare. The doll-faced Cillian Murphy, the bedeviling Scarecrow in the Batman movies, is John, a timid bank clerk in the rural Nebraska town of the title who lives quietly with Emma in a 1950s straight from Norman Rockwell paintings. Or, I should say, lives quietly as Emma, who is the manifestation of John’s split personality disorder. When a politician’s train on a whistle-stop tour of the state derails in his backyard John is caught offguard in Emma’s clothes, and he is forced to pretend that she is John’s new wife, leading to painful self-revelations.
Murphy was bold and brassy in drag in 2005’s Breakfast on Pluto. Here he gives a subdued and delicate performance, latticed with little touches that define John and Emma. He does more for the film than director Michael Lander, who cowrote Peacock with Ryan O Roy, is able to do for his subtle characterizations. Though Emma is based on John’s mother this isn’t a Psycho-type story, nor does it have much to say sociopolitically—Page is an abused mom whom John tries to shelter, and Sarandon a politician’s wife who gotten in on the ground floor of women’s lib and wants Emma to join her, but the script just sketches this in. Bill Pullman, as the weaselly bank manager, Keith Carradine, and Josh Lucas also appear, Lucas much less oily than usual, even sympathetic, as a cop, and suggesting a gay angle that also fails to take wing. It’s one sluggishly unraveled loose end after another, and there’s no disguising the fact that in a cloistered town where everyone knows everyone John’s charade wouldn’t fool anyone.
As a mood piece Peacock is fairly effective, with handsome cinematography by Oscar winner Philippe Rousselot (A River Runs Through It) and production design by four-time nominee Jeannine Oppewall that impresses on the anamorphic widescreen disc, as does a fine score by Brian Reitzell. Style can only take a movie so far, however. Supplements include a making-of, an alternate ending no more clarifying than the actual one, deleted scenes, and rehearsal footage of Murphy. Too bad the film leaves him and his costars all dressed up with no place to go.