Friday, September 25, 2009

"Room of Death" - yes, a solid French thriller

Two weeks ago my mac died, and I lost all my saved reviews. That's right, the scream you may have heard was "the sound of ultimate suffering."

The moment's over; let's begin anew. "Room of Death" is a French thriller from 2007. It's also one of the best surprises I've had in a while. Basic cable includes access to some on-demand channels, including "free movies on demand." A quick imdb search showed mixed reviews for this pic, but the praise was convincing. I'm glad that I read between the lines, as I may have passed this over.

The film begins distressingly, with child abduction and trauma - a sepia-toned girl is trapped in a sepia-toned room, and finds that her mother killed herself in the tub. For some time, this scene has no apparent connection to the plots, which jump back and forth between several characters...

Two pals deface a building, then get into a BMW. It's first clear that they're mad at a former employer, then even clearer that Friend A is a worthless prick who gets others in trouble. Friend A, taking B's keys, drives B's BMW at 100MPH with the headlights off. I'm already hoping B is an early casualty.

After swerving to avoid a train, they strike a hooded man. The corpse creates a lot of problem for these hard-up chums - especially when they realize that the man carried a satchel with millions of Euros. They argue, then hide the body.

At the same time, a lovely police officer is having her own problems. Her twin infants are acting up, and she must leave them with her mother for part of the time leading up to Christmas. Our cop lies repeatedly to her mother - she won't reveal that she's falling for someone, or that she's working a gruesome case.

Creepy shots, like pages from macabre old books, abound.

Her super-nice partner clearly loves her, trying to juggle his desire with the demands of their profession. The tension can rise quite high - other cops don't trust his lovely partner, either because she's (a) the newest member of the team, and/or (b) a woman.

Worse, their latest case is complex, grisly, confusing. They walk onto a sad crime scene - a child, kidnapped, then murdered. Clothed like some porcelain doll, her pallid face has been posed with a broad grin. The cops have also found her father was killed across the street, as he was about to pay her ransom. But he was struck by a car and killed...

From here, the cops set out to find two sets of killers (pas de deux?). They're worried that the kidnapper may start offing more kids now, and will hunt down the car that stopped the ransom. Meanwhile, the two friends are dealing with the strain of their problems differently - one feels excited, but plagued by guilt; the other is more obsessed with their new secret and the ill-gotten money.

An ex and I once argued for a while: she wished that foreign films got as much attention as American films. I agreed, but played devil's advocate. I said that film is to the U.S. what wine is to France - if we dominate the field, it's because of hard work and experience gained over time. Although foreign movies should receive far more attention in the U.S., getting releases instead of remakes, the American film industry has (largely) earned its place.

Foreign movies used to have obvious production value flaws. The biggest Hong Kong flicks had a grain in the film stock; it made a 90's HK movie look like a 70's/80's US pic. These flaws would also appear in spotty sound, bad music, bad translation... Even with good acting and stories and direction, they would look more crude. Even tho these problems are gone, I'm still very impressed when they look on par with anything coming out of Hollywood today.

Many shots are beautifully composed.

"Room of Death" (I think the literal translation is "Room of the Dead") is a quality picture in every way. In film grain, soundtrack, direction, or story, everything is done well. Its biggest weakness? The inevitable comparisons to "The Silence of the Lambs" - police hunt a serial killer; the plots follows many people; the lead is a young, brilliant newbie, underestimated by colleagues... These similarities are largely superficial.

Here's what I can say without spoiling things: The parts are well-written and well-portrayed. The film introduces us to various characters and gives us a real sense of these people. The flick also expertly employs red herrings, emotional beats, and narrative exposition. Nothing seems cheap, repetitious, or uninspired. Everything feels fairly organic.

New decorator, please! This just screams "evil lair."

The movie is like "TSotL" in that it follows victims, police, psychos, and incidental figures. It's also similar in its top-to-bottom quality. The nature of the roles, the way that they're portrayed, and the facets of the characters are all terribly different from what you've seen before. In a way, I think it is "RoD"'s killer that gets the short end of the stick.

Where "Lambs" really let Hannibal Lechter and Buffalo Bill chew scenery and develop over the running time, this picture doesn't do enough in portraying the antagonist that the audience is most interested in. There's a lot that feels unexplained; I looked for subtler messages, but couldn't really find them. This means that the viewer is left knowing a lot of things about the killer (sexuality, emotional problems), yet has no understanding of it.

But I don't think a perfect understanding is really required, as "Room of Death" holds up well, regardless. Forget comparisons! It is its own unique work - thoughtful, thrilling, and high class. It would be worth paying for, much less setting aside two hours to watch. The images look beautiful, even when what's in them is grotesque.

Tangentially, one of the positive IMDb reviews for "RoD" presented me with a problem. The reviewer described the movie thoughtfully, but noted that kids shouldn't watch it because of "hardcore graphic sex in at least one scene on a tv screen." I watched the movie, and was floored by the warning. Kids, animals, and people die. Some are shot, run over, burned, and more. We're shown realistic animal entrails and corpses. But, yes, one shot shows a room in which porn is on the tv.

Yes, I've been bathing a little more often lately...
Was that really the reason to keep kids away? Or is the issue supposed to be an earlier scene, where a woman briefly pleasures herself in the shower? Even that moment one is under a minute, with her breasts visible for maybe 10 seconds! What kind of standards are those? She didn't even climax.

More thoughts later...


  1. I saw this last night and really enjoyed it! Well made thriller, creepy and haunting.....I didn't even mind the subtitles!

    1. Thanks very much! I completely agree - it's part of why I made the Silence of the Lambs comparison. It's one of the last times I can remember a movie about a serial killer that was creepy and engaging in the same way that a good horror movie can be.

      I'm really glad you enjoyed it, and if I find any more foreign gems like this one, I'll be sure to review them soon.


Chime in!