dir: Gregor Jordan
I know, I know: you’ve never heard of it, and neither had I until yesterday.
You have to wonder how flicks with A-list casts like this can disappear so completely in an era where the biggest flick in the world at the moment only has Tom Hank’s voice in a major role, and the next in line hosts the anti-charismatic properties of Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner in lead roles: three people who if you added their personalities together, you’d still be coming up with a figure significantly less than 1.
I hear they share the one personality between them. Which is why, most of the time, you don’t see them all together in the same place. And the rest is computer generated imagery, just like their sparkly, bare-chested, sexless fame.
Perhaps it overstates it to claim that Unthinkable has an A-list cast. Michael Sheen did play Tony Blair, and a werewolf, and a vampire, David Frost and an even more horrific undead creature in the form of the coach of Leeds United. He’s got to be up there.
Samuel L. Jackson once tickled some Maori guy with a lightsabre in some Star Wars flick, and some snakes on a plane, and lost an overacting battle with John Travolta in a couple of movies. I guess he’s at least somewhere on some list of vaguely credible actors. Still, this flick disappeared into the aether without so much as a by your leave, and you have to wonder why.
Enough of the rhetorical bullshit: it’s no mystery why. It’s been effectively dumped because a) the director is Gregor Jordan, and b) it’s about torture, and the general non-goodness thereof.
America doesn’t want to hear that. Even in the post-George Dubya world, in the enlightened and instantly everything better world of Obama, still no-one wants to see films made by Gregor Jordan, especially ones critical of America’s love of torture.
You may ask yourself who Gregor Jordan is, and why Hollywood hates him so much. He is an Australian director, after all, and he did bring Heath Ledger to global or at least suburban prominence with his delightful film Two Hands. Then Jordan made Ned Kelly, again with Ledger, which was terrible, just fucking awful.
Somehow this meant that instead of being punished for all eternity, Gregor Jordan skipped the Pacific and starting working in Hollywood. So he makes Buffalo Soldiers, which suffers a strangled death in its release crib because, gee, they were about to release it when America the Beautiful unleashed hell upon the degenerate nations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The suits thought no-one was comfortable watching a flick that depicted US soldiers in Germany as the venal, criminal opportunists they might very well have been. It’s so unfair when real life screws up your release date, isn’t it?
More recently he made The Informers, which suffered by being completely ignored at the box office, mostly because it was a) crap and b) crap because it was based on the crap short story anthology of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, which was, you guessed it, crap.
Now Unthinkable gets virtually no release, no push, and ends up in the ghetto usually reserved for current flicks by Steven Seagal, Jean Claude and movies with titles that combine something versus something: Megashark versus Giant Octopus, Komodo versus Giant Python, Mel Gibson versus Russian Girlfriend etc.
One word titles that start with the prefix Un- also don’t have a good pedigree, because I can tell you now that Unforgettable, Untraceable and Undefeated are all terrible flicks. Although Unforgiven was pretty good, so there goes that theory.
Short story long: Unthinkable is a decent flick, with a horribly disturbing premise, but one that is all too relevant.
The War on People Who Don’t Like The Stuff We Like or the Way We Like It did not create this idea, but has led to a subsequent rise in this belief that there are circumstances in which it is not only justifiable, but absolutely necessary, to torture someone in order to save lives. It’s almost inextricable to pare down exactly where the idea first became fully formed, because those fuckers in right wing think tanks, the Department of Justice writing up their memos, the previous US Administration, and the hacks on Capitol Hill, used examples in movies and the media to make their case.
It’s the ticking time bomb scenario that I’m referring to, in case you think I’m just putting words together randomly to make the review really, really long.
To whit: if you believe there’s a bomb about to go off somewhere, which will end many lives and hurt a lot of people, are you justified in torturing someone to find out where it is and how to stop it?
The fact that no-one could really point to an actual case where the premise actually held true never seemed to dampen the ardour of the defenders of this line of thinking. The flagship for this mentality, being a goddamn tv show such as 24, always, always, always had the literal ticking time bomb, with whatever result justifying the hero’s actions in stopping it. But real life, sadly, is somewhat less dramatically satisfying.
What rankles the most about the use of this trope, and its mealy mouthed, or even full-throated defence, is that they never had the balls to have an instance, in eight seasons of this crap, where Jack Baeur actually tortured to death someone who was completely innocent, leaving him to try to justify to those around him, and therefore us, as to why the policy is still justifiable and doesn’t lessen our humanity.
Steven Arthur Younger (Michael Sheen), or Cat Stevens as he calls himself now, an American convert to Islam, releases a video saying he has put three nuclear devices in three major cities. He then sets himself up to be caught, in order for people to really take his threat seriously and so they can prove what monsters they are. The bombs are literally ticking away, and set to go off in a few days.
Naturally, the powers that be shit themselves, and throw everyone at the problem, being the military, FBI, CIA, and the Defense Department’s intel services. I think they even get the Girl Guides out working on the problem door-to-door as well.
This is, however, an administration that has no qualms using torture to extract info from the prisoner. A chap who calls himself H (Samuel L. Jackson), is referred to as the best interrogator around, but all he really is, is a torturer. He is a torturer, and we watch him go to work on the dirty, dirty terrorist, but we notice, and the other main character, Agent Brody (Carrie Ann Moss), notices that he’s not asking the subject any questions. He’s just going to work in order to let the chap know he’s serious.
And, boy, is he serious. These scenes are horrifying, but they should be. Sure this is fiction, sure this isn’t referring to an actual specific with any accuracy. But we know this is happening, has happened, and has been argued away as being unfortunate but necessary for the last nine years and even prior to that, so why not take it to its logical extreme?
What the flick totally gets right is that once you accept that it’s acceptable to torture someone, it becomes essentially harder and harder to draw the line at what is acceptable, or, thinkable. If I can justify torturing someone in order to save thousands, in this case, possibly hundreds of thousands of lives, justified because that person is a filthy terrorist, then what about, if it doesn’t work, torturing the people around him? Can I waterboard his mum, can I rip the fingernails out of his kids, can I torment his wife with electrodes, can I kill the people he cares about if nothing else works? They’re innocent, sure, but what if it’s the only thing that will work?
No-one watching this is going to have any of their opinions changed as to whether they are pro or anti torture, but the strength of the screenplay (written by Peter Woodward, of all people, son of Edward Woodward), is that as it ramps up the horrific nature of what H is doing to his despicable victim, the potential for the apocalyptic level of terrorism leaves you with no comfortable recourse or exit. Of course people like Agent Brody are horrified by what the torturer is doing, and his administration high ups and National Security handlers all have points where even they, being torture-happy, can go no further. But how are they going to get him to talk?
This isn’t a flick that stands out because of the quality of the performances. It’s the premise, and the directorial command Jordan displays that really makes this seem valid and important, at least an important argument to be made. Samuel L, for the most part, can do a role like this in his sleep, and if anything he’s far too casual, but it works because his character: loving husband, doting father, expert brutal torturer, is such a complicated one. He manages to be quite hammy at times, especially at the godawful/hilarious moment where the film’s title makes it into the script:
“The next level of what I’ll have to do is…Unthinkable.”
If this was TV, David Caruso would have taken off his sunglasses during the pause.
The ending, though it might seem like a cop-out, actually delivers, and is as downbeat an ending as I can imagine, but it perfectly encapsulates the horror of this premise and this world in which we could be living in once the paragons of human rights, us self-appointed guardians of morality in the West, succumb ultimately to this level of utilitarian thinking. Of course there are dickheads that can rear up and bellow, nasally: “But what about the brutal despots and their torturers and executioners in North Korea, Iran, Syria, Burma, Sudan, Uganda, Uzbekistan and the rest? Why don’t people make movies highlighting the horrors of these other regimes, instead of always picking on the United States of Awesomeness?”
Well, surely we hold democracies to a higher standard than the countries for which our high standards and tut-tutting don’t make a lick of difference. And surely the point that it is fucking wrong and awful to torture people for any reason, because the ticking time bomb scenarios only exist in the movies, is global. It’s wrong no matter who does it, or, otherwise, it’s great when everyone does it.
Haven’t decided yet. Open mind and all that.
8 times Samuel L seemed to enjoy his work way too much out of 10
“I’ll stop only if you tell me to.” – how many women have had to hear that over the years, Unthinkable.