Forgotten Gem: Déjà Vu is pure, delightful hogwash

Déjà Vu – 2006

Director Tony Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Paula Patton, Bruce Greenwood, Adam Goldberg
Screenplay Bill Marsilii, Terry Rosso

When I discovered that Tony Scott had taken his own life, I felt conflicted.  He had directed some of the most overrated pulp (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Man on Fire) I had ever seen, with a style so abrasive that it made me bristle.  On the other hand, he was a director that appealed to many good to great actors, like Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise.  Washington in particular did 5 films with him.  Most of these films were above average, mainly due to his influence and the way that Scott handled actors on the undercard.  Déjà Vu is a great example of both of these aspects.

Washington is ATF Special Agent Doug Carlin, who is brought in on two cases and in his efforts, finds a causal connection between them that is not what anyone else would expect.  Finding out about a body that washed ashore around the time of an explosion that destroys a ferry fully loaded with people, Carlin finds that the floater Claire Kuchever (Patton) was actually found an hour before the detonation.  He concludes that he needs to center the investigation on her.  This is where the movie discovers 4 wheel drive and goes completely off-road.

FBI Special Agent Paul Pryzwarra (Kilmer), also on the task force, is impressed with what he sees of Carlin and offers him a spot on another team.  The concept behind this team is a convoluted device called “Snow White,” which, through modern technology (you know, Google Earth-n-stuff) allows the team to look about 4.25 days in the past and view things from every angle and sound.  As they concentrate their efforts on Claire, they make a discovery which catapults Carlin from observer into a participant.

Washington’s performance is extraordinary, even for the material.  He specializes in being an observer, and this film allows him to do this in spades.  There is a moment early on, during an autopsy that shows the chemistry between actor and director and the character actors.  As the coroner is going over the report on the body of Kuchever, Carlin places his gloved finger on her mouth.  The coroner jumps at the breach of professional etiquette.  Washington, as Carlin, handles this delicately, allowing the coroner, along with us, to see that what he noticed was duct tape that had been placed over her mouth.  The coroner, played by veteran actor Brian Howe, is allowed the luxury of not over reacting to his gaffe.  A lesser director would have persisted in having the coroner overreact and for Carlin to dismiss him arrogantly.  Scott and Washington together always recognized that every professional actor and their characters have professional pride.  When they allow this to be preserved, everyone benefits.

Everyone, I should say, except Adam Goldberg, who plays the inventor Dr. Denny.  Goldberg, a notorious scenery chewer, almost obliterates the chemistry by himself alone.  His one liners are questionably written, but performed absolutely horribly.  It’s one thing to be an asshole, it’s another thing to be unwatchable.  Nonetheless, the strength of the rest of the cast helps to overcome the drawback.

Kilmer is so understated, he is mostly unrecognizable here.  There is no swagger, a bunch of humility and none of the excess weight.  Bruce Greenwood is always solid and here, as the agent in charge, is no exception.  Alexander is the conscience of the team, with a direct, honest and considerate commentary or reaction to the events as she sees them.

As the bad guy, Caviezel is pure gun nut crazy.  His performance, set to evoke comparisons to Timothy McVeigh, is accented with Caviezel’s ability to find the serious in every situation.  No grandstanding, just straight up, man-on-a-mission style determination. Another plus for the plot is that there is no blatant attempt to tie politics into the mix.  That would be a mistake.  Scott recognized that crazy does not have to come from one of the two sides of politics.  It makes its own way.

Paula Patton is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen on film.  She is able to express innocence, confusion and determination at once.  This is the first movie I remember seeing her in, and she’s been good in everything I have seen her in since.  Her reactions to the absurdities of the plot are essential to our suspension of disbelief.

And there is much here to not believe.  Borrowing very loosely from Einstein’s Rosen Bridge theory of wormholes, the sci-fi plays fast and loose with reality, but it’s a means to an end. The story lines connect nicely, even if they are telegraphed a bit too often.  Washington and Patton are show great chemistry in the last act, even with enough self-referential moments to qualify as a Star Wars prequel.

Scott, for his part, allows the film to breathe, which is a rare move for him.  Films like Man on Fire, riddled with so many quick cuts, would be cause to give some of our more vulnerable folks epileptic fits.  One could never decide if they were watching a music video or a kaleidoscope lens.  There are some spectacular explosions here, just like one would expect in a Bruckheimer production.  This time, Scott lets our eyes linger on the depth of the flames.  The lingering camera also helps to help the characterization of Carlin.  If the shots are choppy, it doesn’t matter how long Washington’s eyes linger on something.  We’d be too motion sick to tell.  It’s hard to tell how much better Scott’s overall repertoire would have been had he limited his use of such visual massacres.

Tony Scott turned a corner with Déjà Vu.  His warmth began to show through and his works, while still somewhat awash with occasional bravado, became more human.  This reached a high point of simplicity with his last film, Unstoppable, and I wonder where it would have gone from there.  His death was a loss of a good director getting better.

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