Judge Gordon Sullivan is having recurring nightmares of having to watch more movies with Joel David Moore.
You can't paint over your past…
Spiral has three big strikes against it going in. First, the presence of Joel David Moore. Judging by his other work I've seen, he has one note: awkward. That's not enough to carry a movie. Second, the PG-13 rating, which is often (but not always) the sign of a production unwilling to commit to its premise, especially when that premise includes murder. Third, director Adam Green. I enjoyed his previous feature Hatchet, but nothing about it screamed, "I can also make an intense, Hitchcockian thriller." Although not a complete disaster, the film never quite overcomes these initial deficiencies.
Facts of the Case
Mason (Joel David Moore, Hatchet) is a socially awkward misfit working at a call center, who paints in his spare time. Despite his lack of social skills, he finds himself in a relationship with Amber (Amber Tamblyn, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), who seems to find his quirks charming. As their relationship develops, Mason has to deal with his recurring visions of another woman, and what he might have done with (and to) her.
Spiral is a slow, awkward mess of a film. The whole film hinges on the ambiguity of Mason's awkwardness: is he eccentric or just plain crazy? The first hour is the buildup of the relationship between Mason and Amber, which offers nothing new. He's awkward, she's bubbly, but there's nothing to make us care about the creepy guy and the innocent girl.
There are a few visions and dreams that indicate that Mason is unhinged early in the film, but the tension doesn't really occur until an hour into the film. Those first 60 minutes felt like a lifetime. Mason is such a self-contained character that we really don't learn much about him; we only watch him react (poorly) to others.
The 10 minutes or so after the first hour were genuinely unsettling as Amber begins to discover more about Mason and what happens to the women he paints. Because she's a more interesting character than Mason, I found myself engaged with her plight. However, after those 10 minutes, the final denouement begins, where we learn all about what makes Mason tick. Unsurprisingly, it's a disappointing twist-style ending that gives a neat, packaged justification for Mason's situation.
The film should belong to Joel David Moore, but his characterization of Mason is just too flat to carry the whole 90 minutes. He does creepy and awkward very well, but never manages to convey a sense that there's a person beneath the inept exterior. I don't lay all the failure at his feet, as the script could have given him more to do, but as a central performance, his portrayal of Mason just doesn't cut it.
Moore's lackluster Mason leaves room for Amber Tamblyn to steal the show as his love interest. She's effervescent and believably naive. She even pulls off the fact that she finds Mason attractive, which is hard to believe. Zachary Levi also stands out as Mason's obnoxious, womanizing boss. He seems like the only real, grounded character in the production.
The direction is fairly effective. Spiral isn't a big-budget film, but it looks pretty slick thanks to co-directors Adam Green and Joel David Moore. The film certainly looks like a moody thriller, with lots of dark tones and a rainy background. The direction falters in the last few minutes as the final "secret" is revealed in slow motion with an upbeat pop song on the soundtrack, totally undermining whatever impact the revelation might have had.
Although I didn't find the film very enjoyable, this is a fine DVD presentation. The film looks slick, and the video does a decent job of reproducing its color scheme and tone. On the problem side, there was some excessive grain here and there, and some scenes were a little darker than necessary, but overall this is better video than with most films of this budget. The audio was a little more troubling. The jazz-based score and source music were reproduced well, but sometimes the dialogue was mixed too low, making the actors more difficult to hear. The lack of subtitles was, as usual, obnoxious.
The extras are mostly fluff, but fans will probably find something to enjoy. The included making-of documentary is an eight-minute impressionistic look behind the scenes of Spiral. There's no narrative, or really any interviews. It's mainly on-set footage showing how cold the shoot was. Occasionally, the actors will talk to the camera, joking about the difficulty with the night shoots. Those looking for lots of production details will have to turn to the commentary, which features a boatload of participants. Co-directors Adam Green and Joel David Moore join producer Jeremy Danial Boreing, director of photography Will Barrat, and actors Amber Tamblyn and Zachary Levi for a low-key discussion of the production of Spiral. They're having fun, joking, but also giving lots of info on the making of the film. I found the commentary more enjoyable than the feature, surprisingly. Anchor Bay also includes three "Cinefile" promos from the Starz network. Totaling 10 minutes, they are the typical EPK-style bumpers that often run between features on premium channels. If you like the film, these are worth watching. The included trailer is a lot more compelling than the feature, advertising a tense, effective thriller. If only Spiral had lived up to that.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you have a crush on Joel David Moore and can't get enough of his work, then this is the film for you. He's in almost every one of the film's 90 minutes. I think that's to its detriment, but if you're a fan, Spiral will likely satisfy.
Spiral commits the cardinal sin of the thriller film: it's boring. The characters are difficult to care about, the plot takes to long to reveal itself, and the ending is unsatisfying. Moore reveals in the commentary that Spiral had its genesis in a short film, and that's fairly obvious in the finished product. As a 20-to-45-minute short film, Spiral might have been compelling enough to be worth watching. At 90 minutes, it just can't overcome its lackluster central performance and overlong runtime.
Spiral is found guilty, and its protagonist is ordered to undergo art therapy.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Commentary with Adam Green, Joel David Moore, Jeremy Danial Boreing, Will Baratt, Amber Tamblyn, and Zachary Levi
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.