Directed by: Roger Donaldson, Runtime: 110 minutes
Outside of whether a protagonist should kiss the girl (or guy) or not, there's a question that cinema loves to ask its audience more than most: if given the chance to do what the authorities can't, would you kill somebody who did you life-altering harm? Seeking Justice, the new film from Dante's Peak and Bank Job director Roger Donaldson, tweaks that dilemma by removing the guilt of point-blank murder from the situation (well, sort of), instead asking whether one would employ someone else -- a stranger, no less -- to knock off the wrongdoer. Only it's not a hitman being asked, and it's not for money; it's a "benevolent" anonymity-driven alliance that takes matters in their own hands through pre-emptive research into the delinquents, aiming to clean up the streets in a way that partially removes guilt and agency from those who feel victimized. All they have to do is say the word and agree to "repay the favor" at a later date, and the deed's done. Sounds fairly convoluted and hard to buy, right?
So, too, is this frustrating-as-hell thriller, one that yearns to be appreciated on merit but ultimately doesn't earn it.
A cast of actors well-versed in the nature of the vigilante narrative becomes an initial draw to Seeking Justice, spearheaded by Drive Angryand Kick-Ass star Nicolas Cage. He plays a mild-mannered, chess-playing literature teacher named Will Gerard, whose wife, musician Laura (January Jones, Unknown), is brutally beaten and raped one evening on the streets of New Orleans following a rehearsal. While waiting to hear about her condition at the hospital, a sharply-dressed individual, Simon (Guy Pearce, Memento), approaches Will and explains something that his organization does in a cloak-and-dagger proposition: through tightly-networked channels and time-crunched situations, they "take out the trash" when the penal system fails -- and, somehow, they seem to know the whereabouts of Laura's assailant. They don't demand compensation; Simon merely asks Will to repay the gesture at a time in the future. That time eventually comes, and Will's forced to deal with the consequences of his deal with the devil, either by doing their bidding or seeing what happens if he denies.
The intentions fueling Simon's organization are admirable in an idealistic sort of way, something tough to combat while discussing Seeking Justice's motives -- especially when it plays dirty by focusing on post-Katrina New Orleans as a place so destitute that vigilantism is the only answer. Essentially, Simon's network speaks to a similar thematic intention to that of Death Wish or The Brave One, and even Showtime's Dexter, where the malignant fiends released back on the streets deserve to be bluntly excised before they cause further harm. Only here, the psychology behind individual vigilantism drops out of the point-of-view to make way for something else: the idea of a cyclical paradigm that pivots on justice being exacted through a faceless, deadly version of a neighborhood watch, one that's manned by people drawn in by obscured motives outside of blind trust and a promise to cash in later. There's a transparent fallacy in all that, especially when it attempts to shoehorn in Will's escalating "buyer's remorse".
Seeking Justice does have the potential to deliver something exhilarating as a timely social thriller, as a riff on its influences that exists in the space of a current embroiled battleground; however, under Donaldson's uninteresting direction and a malnourished, convenient script, it fails to take flight with either its thrills or limp academic contemplations. There's a scene where we watch Will nervously purchase two candy bars -- not one, but two -- as the signal that he's progressing forward with the plan, and the rigid focus on watching Nicolas Cage fidget-'n-sweat as he enters the bills in a clichéd show of symbolism is maddeningly trite, even with the understanding of why the gesture must be done. The story whips into a fury of questionable motives and low-brow conspiracy theories after that, along with a forced evolution of Will's character from a buttoned-up professor to a primal man on the edge, and the film's earnest intentions get lost in the shoddy execution and convenient detail-twisting surrounding Simon's network.
Perhaps it would've been easier to cope with Seeking Justice had the lead performances been more distinct and involving, but there's not a lot to latch onto here to bolster the flimsy exposition beyond its limitations. Nic Cage and January Jones offer little that we haven't seen before; Cage defaults to his generic wild-eyed and twitchy persona, and Jones can't shake the dainty, aloof rigidity of her Mad Men namesake. Both are fine enough, sure, but they're not capable of fending off the emotional apathy festering at the thriller's core. The real problem comes in their dire lack of chemistry, both pre- and post-attack, where their anticipated personas feel like they're just going through the motions while struggling with the turmoil and mistrust that surround the couple's insecurity. As the "villain" complicating their life, Guy Pearce remains merely suitable as Simon, a smarmy surface-level antagonist with questionable motives. And though you'll spot OZ's Harold Perrineau and Dexter's Jennifer Carpenter, don't expect 'em to influence things much.
Eventually, Seeking Justice sputters into a stream of whodunit sleuthing where Will scrambles to unearth as much info about the organization as he can, taking on an aesthetic not entirely unlike David Fincher's The Game, yet it grows harder to maintain interest in the mystery behind the curtain. Foreseeable, banal twists unravel as the plot progresses, while some rather suspect decision-making and harebrained attempts to generate suspense -- dodging car wrecks, skirting the police, inspecting sketchy storage sheds -- liven the pacing to clunky and tedious ends, jerking back and forth to a point that's barely satisfying even when you're unthinkingly following the events that unfold. And that's tolerable, up until the point when the organization starts to threaten Will's livelihood when he doesn't readily comply to their demands; the film devolves into a mess of muddled convictions at that point, losing sight of the questions asked that initially made the premise intriguing. I simply stopped caring about any speculation invested in the story's destination, which isn't a good thing considering the gravity of its themes.
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