Don't act so disgusted when you see Judge Daryl Loomis through the window; you're the one watching.
What would you do if someone was watching you.
Based on the 1962 novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Cry of the Owl is a worthy story, thick with twists and turns, that loses something in its adaptation to the screen. While the performances and direction are solid, the film lacks suspense and, for all the swerves, is a rather toothless thriller.
Facts of the Case
The recently divorced Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine, 24 Hour Party People) has found a way to cure some of his loneliness. He stands in the shadows watching a woman he's never met blissfully doing the dishes in her kitchen. When Jenny (Julia Stiles, O) catches him watching her she reacts in an unexpected way. Instead of calling the police, she invites him inside for cookies. In spite of her boyfriend, they begin to build a relationship. When that boyfriend disappears, however, Robert sees that he might not be the creepy one, after all.
While there are things to like about The Cry of the Owl, it really feels like a missed opportunity. Its blank characterizations and domestic plot shares commonality with other adaptations of Highsmith's work, but where, say, Matt Damon's blank slate title character in The Talented Mr. Ripley instilled a sense of dread because he could be anybody, these characters and their actions are often wholly telegraphed.
It shouldn't be this way, however, based on the film's opening sequences. Robert staring in the window builds a creepy atmosphere; we know little about his life except that he's new in town, getting a divorce, and is a designer for an aeronautics firm. There's nothing here that makes him seem weird at all, but that's what makes the watching so effective. His intent is unknown, but it can't be good. This is taken even farther when Jenny discovers him. She is surprised, but hardly afraid. Robert explains why he's there, but, pathetic and criminal as he sounds, instead of the expected "Get the hell off my property before I call the cops" response, she invites him to talk it out. Now, two seemingly normal people are acting very strangely. It's an intriguing opening precisely because director Jamie Thraves (The Low Down) plays his cards close to his chest. It's when he starts to show is hand that the plot twists become increasingly obvious.
The very next day, Jenny shows up outside of Robert's office, ostensibly by coincidence. But when she tells him that she's broken up with her boyfriend, this should be a clear indication for Robert to run fast. Instead, his loneliness overtakes his reason, and they start dating. The more Robert gets to know Jenny, the more he realizes that her blissful expression in the kitchen was a facade; Jenny is as gloomy as Robert and is completely obsessed with death. They're a strange couple, but they seem harmless.
Not so harmless, though, is Greg (James Gilbert, Saw VI), Jenny's ex, and this is where the story becomes most predictable. Of course he's jealous and of course he's violent. His increasing hostility is expected, as is his big confrontation with Robert. Less surprising is that Greg disappears that same night and the police suspect Robert of murder. You can see where I'm going with this; or, better put, if you've seen any average suspense film, you can see where Thraves is going…exactly where you expect him to. From the lies told, to the accusations thrown Robert's way, to the final confrontation, everything moves like it was taken out of a suspense textbook, killing every bit of tension Thraves built so well in the beginning.
While it's true that a mediocre screenplay makes a thriller a tough sell, all is not lost with The Cry of the Owl. Together the performances and directorial style are almost enough to overcome the story's shortcomings, though not quite. The lead characters are both quite good. Paddy Considine is believable at the start when he's the suspicious one, but even more so when he becomes the target. Like Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train, the first Highsmith adaptation, Robert is a victim of circumstance, totally helpless to fight all that happens to him. Considine plays the role very well in this regard, and shows tiny bits of strength and resolve when he absolutely has to. Julia Stiles has always been a strange actress to me. Consistently throughout her career I have found her chilliness appealing. I can never tell whether her characters are naturally like this, or if she's just a little wooden, but it doesn't matter. Especially here, that distant, somewhat blank demeanor works exactly as it should. Jenny is a layered character who wants nobody beneath her surface and Stiles's portrayal makes it properly hard for Robert to get there.
The supporting players add plenty of character to keep things going. Greg and Nickie (Caroline Dhavernas, Hollywoodland), Robert's ex-wife, don't have a lot of screen time, but they're integral to the story and totally repulsive despite their attractive appearances. The best supporting characters are the two detectives investigating Greg's disappearance. Played by Arnold Pinnock (Assault on Precinct 13) and Bruce McFee (Death to Smoochy), the duo plays off each other brilliantly, adding to the sense of danger for Robert and, dry as it is, providing the entirety of the comic relief. The film would have been better had their investigation into the crime been a little closer to the front.
Jamie Thraves, who wrote the film as well as directed it, shows more subtlety and skill than most directors who come out of the music video game. There's nothing particularly flashy about The Cry of the Owl, but it is solid top to bottom. It has a dark and cold feel that effectively represents the detachment the characters have toward one another. The problems with the story aside, the film moves very well through its running time and, while it ends on a note I don't entirely agree with, Thraves leaves you in a position to tell the remainder of the story yourself; not having the whole thing laid out is much appreciated.
Paramount's bare-bones release of The Cry of the Owl is technically sound, though nothing terribly special. The anamorphic image has some grain, but this appears intentional. The colors are accurate across the board and, given how generally dark the film is, there is plenty of depth and clarity in the black levels. The sound is even better, with a strong surround mix that comes through nicely in all channels. The dialog is consistent and clear, while the sound effects and the music are present, but never overpowering. There are no extras.
There was a lot of potential in The Cry of the Owl, both in the source material and the cast. The performances do the film justice, but if Thraves could have found a way to ratchet up the suspense, this could have been a great indie thriller. As it stands, however, it's still worth a rental.
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