Senseless [Movie review by Lackey]

Senseless90 min., 2008
Directed by Simon Hynd
My rating: 4 stars
IMDB • Netflix

“Removing an eye is easy. All it takes is a confident man and a coffee spoon.”

* * *

Here’s a question for you: how much influence do you have over the lives of others?

Not just your friends and family, mind you, but your fellow citizens or the world at large? You might say “not much,” at least when it’s not an election year. But think about it: if you’re reading this at all, there’s a strong chance you live in one of a handful of the richest, most industrialized and “modern” nations on the planet. Who made the products you buy, and what went into manufacturing them? When you buy an iPhone or a pair of Converse All-Stars (Converse is owned by Nike), what effects does the demand for the product have on the nation or nations that produced it? And corporate profits–what about those? When you buy a cup of coffee from Starbucks or an album released by one of the UMG labels, what happens to the money? Where does it go? What is it used for?

Most of us ask these questions of ourselves very rarely, if ever. (Working in the financial sector and having a bit of a leftist bent, I might ask them of myself more than many.) I can guarantee you that economist Elliot Gast, the protagonist of Senseless, didn’t think of them very often during the film’s backstory. He just wandered through his life, doing calculations for an organization described as “the financial CIA,” looking out for his number-one best interest and not thinking much about consequences.

To me, the best stories are the ones about consequences. My two favorite current TV shows are Breaking Bad and Fringe: the former is the story about how what starts out as an attempt by a dying man to provide for his family spins out of control, while in the latter, a grieving father tries to save a dying boy, and his actions end up nearly ripping two universes apart. Elliot Gast is forced to face the truth about his actions’ consequences when a group of masked political extremists (led by a man known only as “Blackbeard”), ranting about the evils of American imperialism, kidnap him in France, hold him captive in a small suite of rooms, and methodically torture him (first by holding a hot iron against his tongue, then by shoving a soldering iron into his nostrils; from there, it gets really ugly)–recording video and audio all the while and releasing the footage on the internet for the entertainment of thousands, who pay undisclosed sums of money in exchange for a say in his fate.

They’re not called “repercussions” for nothing.

Removing an eye is easy

Based on a novel by Stona Finch, Senseless is the rare horror/thriller film that will make the audience think while it’s scaring the bejeezus out of it. Make no mistake: this is an intense, shocking film. The agonies Gast endures at the hands of his captives is no less brutal than what you might see in a Saw sequel. (What the captors do with a pair of icepicks will stay with me for far longer than anything I’ve ever seen in a Fulci film.) In fact, many of them are more horrific for being executed in a more improvised, DIY style than John Kramer’s elaborate deathtraps–and because the philosophy behind the torture isn’t some pseudo-moral fig leaf invented out of whole cloth to justify a character’s actions, but something that people in the real world believe in and act upon on a daily basis.

But, as I’ve said countless times, violence is nothing if you don’t engage with the characters. Gast might seem like a loving husband and a nice guy, and maybe he actually is, but when you factor in the things he’s done over the course of his career, how “good” is he, really? (Flashbacks to his childhood drive the point home.) Even if your politics are more on the conservative side, the extremists certainly have good points to make and a desire to fix the problem–but certainly their violent actions are unconscionable? Or could it be that occasionally violence in the name of a good cause really can be justified? Can you hate the boy next door? Is it always wrong to sympathize with a terrorist?

Backing up the film’s commitment to seeing consequences all the way through are a series of tour de force performances by the lead actors. Jason Behr (Roswell) embodies the modern, upwardly mobile, All-American Organization Man, neatly reconciling Gast’s positive qualities with his selfishness and willful blindness. Joe Ferrara is brilliant as Blackbeard, the sadistic fanatic who seeks to turn vile, vicious acts into positive change. And Emma Catherwood is riveting as the “Nurse,” one of Blackbeard’s fellow extremists who tends to Gast’s injuries but is conflicted between the righteousness of the cause while being disgusted with his extremism.

Finch and director/screenwriter Simon Hynd eschew a quest for any easy answers in favor of thorough exploration of the characters and themes, and never resorts to being heavy-handed or beating the audience over the head with a message. The plot’s construction is a marvel to behold and largely avoids modern thriller clichés (although there’s one twist at the end that I didn’t see coming). Special effects are spare but highly effective. The production design is beautiful, the atmosphere claustrophobic, the direction taut, with everything culminating in an ending which is slightly anti-climactic in pure plot terms but which is, nonetheless, the only possible outcome to this series of events.

It may sound like hyperbole, but Senseless is damn near flawless, a film that deserves to be regarded in future as a true classic without the adjective “cult.” And it’s a textbook example of the right way to fuse social commentary with horror–George Romero, take note.

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About Lackey

Daniel Lackey blames this whole thing on Richard Matheson and Tobe Hooper, whose works ("Nightmare At 20,000 Feet" and Poltergeist, respectively) sparked his interest in getting the crap scared out of him when he was eight years old. He can be found on Twitter at @Lackey_D.
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