Tag Archives: Pyschological Thriller


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Screwdriver can be rented or purchased on-demand.

DIRECTED BY: Cairo Smith

FEATURING: AnnaClare Hicks, Charlie Farrell, Milly Sanders

PLOT: Recovering from a breakup, Emily goes to California to stay with a high school friend and his wife, but discovers that they are anxious to keep her around—by any means possible.

Still from Screwdriver (2023)

COMMENTS: The orange-colored drinks Melissa insists Emily drain aren’t screwdrivers—they’re spiked with something seriously stronger than Ketel One. Emily, who comes from a conservative Christian background, doesn’t drink much; three glasses of wine at dinner are a guilty indulgence for her. But whatever Melissa and Robert are slipping into her food and drink is sapping her already fragile willpower.

It’s not a spoiler to suggest that her hosts are up to no good; it’s inherent in the subgenre, and right there in the synopsis. The suspense occurs in how and why that “no good” is realized. Screwdriver has no money to realize it’s aims; the closest you will get to a special effect is some disorienting editing suggesting time passing in a blur. Its tools are limited to its three main characters talking in one house. Screwdriver gets the acting quality necessary to pass over the watchability threshold. As Emily, Hicks is always likable, if sometimes too meek and submissively childlike, even given her vulnerable state. Farrell’s Robert hits the proper note of nerdy menace, with smiles that linger on the border of genuine and smarmy. (Sanders, as a chilly corporate Lady Macbeth, gives a more stereotypical performance, but it doesn’t distract from the overall drama.) The script toys with their three-way dynamic artfully, never stating anything too obviously, leaving the audience to guess at the darker implications under the surface of the small talk. Dialogue exchanges are realistic—you can see Emily sensing unsaid subtext, although she lacks the courage to challenge her hosts directly. The movie’s biggest gamble is Robert’s use of guided visualization in his pro-bono therapy sessions with his guest: the journeys he leads Emily on are surreal and filled with pseudo-religious imagery (like talking cigarette oracles), a technique that generates a sense of mystical grandeur (and menace) far outside what the budget will allow.

The main trick Screwdriver has up its sleeve is its subtle impenetrability. It’s clear what happens in the movie, and even how it happens; what’s harder to grasp is why it happens, and what it ultimately means. Even if you suss out Robert and Melissa’s ultimate motive, plenty of uncertainties remain about what exactly will happen after the end credits roll. A number of things are left unsaid; the characters always know more than they let on to the audience. We hear one-sided telephone conversations about events whose significance to the plot is obscure. Robert hints at possible mistakes in Emily’s past. We don’t know why she and her husband broke up. There’s a lot of talk about God—Robert treats Emily’s belief in God with contempt, as a weakness he can exploit. He’s also extremely concerned about his tenure review, which should be just a formality—is there a lurking scandal? Melissa is coy about what her startup—excuse me, her “startrupt”— actually does. And although a literal screwdriver appears in the film, along with a mystical imaginary one, its significance is unclear, so even the title is a mystery. The movie’s obliqueness and unelaborated subplots may strike some as dry and amateurish; others will find it clever enough to make for an intriguing and promising feature debut.

Writer/director Cairo Smith is only 26. As pointed out above, Screwdriver was obviously made for almost no money; Smith was forced to rely on the script do the heavy lifting. Somebody should give this guy a fat stack and see what he can get done.


What is going on here? This is a question which Screwdriver (2023) poses early, but cannot answer in a meaningful way throughout its ninety-minute (or so) runtime. Lost in a maze of hard-to-follow, harder-to-engage dialogue, with a limited cast, set and – most detrimentally to the film overall – characterisation, it feels far longer than it is.”–Keri O’Shea, Warped Perspective (contemporaneous)


Una pura formalità

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DIRECTED BY: Giuseppe Tornatore

FEATURING: Gérard Depardieu, Roman Polanski

PLOT: Apprehended during a downpour in the middle of the countryside, a famous writer is challenged to explain his whereabouts that evening by the station’s resident inspector, a great fan of the author’s work.

COMMENTS: “When I tell this story, no one will believe me. How can a place this absurd exist?”

Though technically an Italian movie—an Italian wrote and directed it, the ancillary actors are all Italian, as is the entire film crew—there are few movies I’ve seen that feel more “French” than Tornatore’s A Pure Formality. Of course, having Gérard Depardieu, a Frenchman’s Frenchman, as the lead does quite a lot to lend it Gallic bonafides. But beyond that primary anchor are the secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary anchors, all of them latching the film squarely in the great ocean of French cinema. Had you told me that this was Jean Cocteau‘s final film (though he would have been 104 at the time), I might well have believed you.

The story concerns a disillusioned, alcoholic, end-of-his-tether novelist—the second French anchor—named Onoff (Gérard Depardieu), who is found in a frazzled (and drenched) state by the local gendarmes in the French (naturally) countryside. Hostile and unable to produce identity papers, he is taken back to the water-logged police station to await “the Inspector” (a genteel, but commanding, Roman Polanski). Upon the Inspector’s arrival, a strange dialogue ensues, replete with literary quotations and oblique philosophizing—anchor the third. As the late night turns into early morning, their conversation continues, teetering between truth and lies, and becoming increasingly existential in tone as the station gets wetter and wetter.

As this is a psychological thriller, there is a monumental twist near the end; this being a French crime thriller, that twist has monumentally philosophical overtones (the fourth anchor). But throughout the often fraught interrogation occur absurd comedic moments. The police station seems to inhabit some timeless liminal space existing indefinably in an era pieced together from the 1950s through the present. During their talks—which are a real pleasure to witness, as Dépardieu is at the top of his game, and Polanski shows that he should really act more often—the ceiling’s leaks grow in number and intensity. Around the midway point, all the officers, helped by Onoff, literally bail out the station and vainly try to mop up the floodwaters with towels. Meanwhile, a metaphor skitters around the floor in the form of a white mouse, whose fate is alluded to by the baited trap found in a cabinet whose door keeps opening mysteriously.

Whether or not all this artful playfulness works for you hinges on the ending, about which I can say no more. But presuming you appreciate a bit of theatricality (this is, effectively, a two-man stage show) accompanied by an Ennio Morricone score, then A Pure Formality is one of the tastiest slices of crimembert cheese you could hope for[efn_note]If that pun isn’t to your taste, then hard cheese.[/efn_note].


“By the end of the film, amid reminders of Kafka and Beckett, we learn the answer to the strange night’s interrogation. Some members of the audience will have guessed it. Others will have feared it. Few will find it worth the wait.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)


Abre los Ojos


DIRECTED BY: Alejandro Amenábar

FEATURING: Eduardo Noriega, , Chete Lera, , Fele Martínez, Gérard Barray

PLOT: A playboy’s life is destroyed when his good looks are destroyed in an accident—although his court-appointed psychiatrist, defending him on a murder charge, insists that his face was perfectly reconstructed and it’s all in his imagination.

Still from Open Your Eyes (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Why won’t the dreamlike psychological thriller Open Your Eyes make the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made? Simply because of the film’s ending, where the characters sit down and, with almost airtight logic, explain away every mysterious event that has been going on through a combination of exposition and flashbacks—at one point even using a visual aid.

COMMENTS: It almost goes without saying that Open Your Eyes, the original Spanish psychothriller, is superior to Vanilla Sky, the 2001 remake with . Not that I count myself among the detractors of the Hollywood version—other than the unfortunate turn by the usually reliable Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the original but with a then-inadequate grasp of the English language, and a few too many pop singles, it’s quite competent. But you owe it to yourself to see the darker, stripped-down original first.

Eduardo Noriega plays Cesar, a handsome, womanizing one-percenter who has everything any guy could ever want: money, leisure time, good looks, and a new plaything in his bed every night. He sees it all taken from him after his face is mutilated in an automobile accident, brought about (indirectly) through his own past philandering—ironically, on the morning after he meets a woman who could be the One who makes him settle down for good. At least, that’s the tale as related to Cesar’s court-appointed psychiatrist from the prison cell where he languishes, awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend. But his story doesn’t add up. For one thing, Cesar, hiding behind a mask, insists that his face is still disfigured, while his psychiatrist tells him it’s been reconstructed. He is also losing his mind, convinced that the woman he is accused of killing was an impostor. Not only that, but he is having vivid dreams that he (and therefore, the audience) can’t immediately distinguish from reality, including one in which he wakes up in a Madrid that has been completely depopulated (a scene memorably re-staged with in an eerily empty Times Square in Vanilla Sky). And to top it all off he has another, fragmentary, set of dreams, which are almost completely obscured; these are visualized onscreen through a hazy filter that makes the action look almost rotoscoped. The psychiatrist’s investigation will eventually unveil the real explanation behind Cesar’s condition.

In the “puzzle movie” genre, Open Your Eyes is a classic, one of the most successful at building up an ontological enigma, then explaining it away with an ingenious (if highly speculative) plot device. The closedness of the narrative solution, however, works against the movie’s weirdness—the movie’s cryptic tension is too fully released, leaving us nothing more to ponder. Still, Open Your Eyes this is highly recommended for those who prefer their mysteries to be completely resolved at the end. And if the hallucination scenes had been just a little more harrowing and fantastical (a la Jacob’s Ladder or Dark City), Open Your Eyes might have squeaked onto the List—or into a rating, at the very least.


“…unlikely to satisfy those who insist on linear storytelling and pat endings. But in its deliberately vexing way, ‘Open Your Eyes’ is a film with enough intellectual meat on its stylish bones to give more adventurous moviegoers something to chew on afterward.”–Lawrence Van Gelder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Josh.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)