Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2013

No One Lives

Genius or lucky dog?

The maddening stupidity of 'No One Lives' undermines its central conceit

No One Lives
Anchor Bay Films
Director: Ryûhei Kitamura
Screenplay: David Cohen
Starring: Luke Evans, Adelaide Clemens, Lee Tergesen, America Olivo, Derek Magyar, Beau Knapp, Lindsey Shaw and Laura Ramsey
Rated R / 1 hour, 26 minutes
Opened May 10, 2013 in limited release
(out of four)

Word of advice: If you're constructing your movie around a Brilliant Unstoppable Killer, the success rate of that killer cannot be entirely reliant on the endless stupidity of his victims, rather than his own supposed brilliance. If all he has to show for his grand plans are a bunch of imbeciles who keep inexplicably waltzing into his poorly laid traps or accidentally making the only possible wrong decision that will get them killed, sorry, but your killer is no genius at all, but merely a very fortunate maniac riding a streak of good (dumb?) luck.

This particular template seems to get that formula wrong a lot. The brilliant, always-three-steps-ahead killer is an easy enough idea to come up with - and a popular one, too - but not nearly as easy to actually write. I can think of countless unstoppable killers off the top of my head, but comparably few whose intellect actually holds up to scrutiny.

To wit: In Ryûhei Kitamura's No One Lives, a team of crooks has discovered that one of their own - a bald, hulking, 350-pound mountain of a man - has been brutally killed by a psychopathic killer. When two of the crooks discover the body, and the gruesome, bloody scene that resulted from the murder, do they immediately exit the premises, for fear that the murderer might be lying in wait? Of course not. Do they stick around to chat? Of course they do. Do they then take the time to lift and carry the 350-pound body into their van for no reason whatsoever? Yes. Yes, they do.

Now, surely we can't blame them for not anticipating that the killer had gutted the body and is hiding patiently inside the corpse. But certainly it's hard to get past the whole WHY ON EARTH ARE THEY TAKING THE TIME TO MOVE A 350-POUND BODY thing. It makes absolutely no sense, and yet the killer is somehow expecting the crooks to decide to carry this 350-pound body back to their hideout; otherwise his plan of hiding inside the body would serve no purpose.

This is the movie's bad circular logic. Nothing in this sequence makes any sense, but every piece of it is reliant on every other piece. It's perfectly choreographed nonsense.

If that's not enough, let's try another example: Said group of crooks is barricaded inside their house, hopelessly surrounded by the killer roaming around outside. At one point, one of the captives flees, and the killer chases her on foot through the woods. Now then: Do any of the other captives decide to take that opportunity to exit the house and run run run in the opposite direction? No. No of course they don't. Because then the movie would pretty much be over. That, or the filmmakers would have to come up with some other idiotic way for the characters to find themselves back in the killer's grasp.

In many cases - even most cases - I think it's largely beside the point to nitpick too much about little details of plausibility and "plot holes," especially when it relates to the idiosyncrasy and unpredictability of human behavior. But a movie has to meet us halfway, too - and if a movie is trying to claim that its bloodthirsty antagonist is outsmarting his victims, the least it could do is make those victims a slightly worthy mental adversary. Kitamura and writer David Cohen stack the deck in the killer's favor not by elevating his skill or planning or intelligence or wit, but by diminishing everyone else's.

It's kind of a shame, because No One Lives begins with a pretty interesting approach to its characters. In the opening 20 minutes, we are introduced to a few separate sets of characters - 1) a young woman, Emma Ward (Adelaide Clemens), who is all over the news after going missing several weeks ago, but who we know is still alive; 2) a young-ish couple (played by Luke Evans and Laura Ramsey) stopping off in a small town for the night, seemingly on their way to a fresh start and a new home; and 3) a group of thieves who specialize in ripping off the homes of vacationing well-to-do families. The roles of the characters are obscure early on, as Kitamura allows us to see them largely free of context before the plot sets into motion.

But it's not too long before we discover that the mild-mannered gentleman passing through town is not exactly as mild-mannered as he appears to be - and certainly isn't the kind of person a group of second-rate crooks should be targeting for their next score.

Luke Evans makes for a convincing enough killer - though admittedly, the talent level of much of the rest of the cast makes him look like Daniel Day-Lewis by comparison. (Clemens and Lee Tergeson are fine; Derek Magyar, America Olivo and Lindsey Shaw are flat-out awful.)

The film tries to throw in some The Following-esque psychological balderdash, but it's simply not smart enough to pull it off. Or much of anything else, for that matter. Creating a supposedly brilliant primary character is a risky thing; even if you're not quite as smart as that character is intended to be, you've got to at least be able to give us a reasonable imitation of intelligence. But no - for all its smart intentions, No One Lives is too dumb to even fake it.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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