This Week at the Movies

"Safe House" is a by-the-numbers CIA thriller, while "The Turin Horse" is a bleak, but haunting, apocalyptic tale.

Right down to its title, the new CIA thriller starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds wants audiences to know it’s playing it safe.

The film – Daniel Espinosa’s “Safe House” – is far too stylized and intense for me to lump it with the rest of this year’s mostly mediocre studio pictures. But it’s also too entirely by the book that I certainly wouldn’t go as far to say that it stands out.

In the film, Washington plays Tobin Frost (where do they come up with these names?), a rogue CIA agent who was the best in his class before disappearing and, allegedly, selling secrets to the enemy. Reynolds is Matt Weston, a young agent who acts as the caretaker of a secret “safe house,” but has long sought a more glamorous assignment.

It comes to pass that Frost ends up as a “guest” in Weston’s safe house. So, when a group of armed men raid the locale, it becomes the younger agent’s duty to keep an eye on Frost, who is a master of manipulation.

The picture wastes little time with characterization and jumps straight into its barrage of shootouts, car chases and intense hand-to-hand combat sequences. These scenes are handled well and it is clear that Espinosa has a future as an action filmmaker.

But “Safe House” is too willing to fall back on clichés and substitutes frenetic action for context, a well-thought-out story or three-dimensional characters. It’s a moderately amusing – but routine - addition to its genre and nothing more.

On the other hand, Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” is a chronicle of enslavement to routine.

The picture opens with voiceover narration on how Friedrich Nietzsche once spotted a cab driver brutally whipping a stubborn horse that wouldn’t move. The philosopher is said to have thrown his arms around the horse to prevent further violence and then later suffered a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.

Tarr, who is Hungary’s filmmaker laureate, opens his latest – and, apparently, final film – with a shot of a man driving his horse-driven carriage down a foggy road. The wind is whipping the carriage to the point that it is nearly impossible for them to move forward.

Is this the cab driver from Nietzsche’s story? We are never told, but the opening monologue sets the tone for the bleak proceedings to come.

The driver lives alone with his daughter in a small cabin in the countryside. An apocalyptic windstorm continuously rages outside their door.

Much like Lars Von Trier’s recent “Melancholia,” Tarr’s film hints at an approaching doomsday. But whereas that previous film’s characters greeted the end of times with a wide range of emotions – anger, depression, anxiety and, finally, acceptance, Tarr’s characters have become slaves to routine.

For nearly two-and-a-half hours, we watch as they brave the winds to draw water from their well, attempt to feed their horse, boil potatoes for dinner, drink a glass of liquor and then retire to bed. This routine is repeated over and over again throughout the course of the film.

Occasionally, some travelers, including a band of gypsies and a pessimistic neighbor, stop in.

The film requires great patience and I’d imagine some moviegoers would not want to put themselves through such a glacially paced and bleak experience.

But “The Turin Horse,” which won the top prize at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, is a powerful movie that is filled haunting imagery and makes great use of sound.

It’s a film that I greatly admired, if not quite loved as much as Tarr’s previous masterworks – the eerie and mysterious “Werckmeister Harmonies” and the seven-and-a-half hour saga “Satantango.”

Regardless, it’s a singular movie-going experience.

"Safe House" is playing at Douglaston's Movie World and "The Turin Horse" is currently screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in Manhattan.


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