Jovovich, Disorder Only Bright 'Faces' In Toothless Thriller

Directed by: Julien Magnat, Runtime: 102 minutes
Grade: C-

In Faces in the Crowd, a serial killer has been tearing through town with a straight-razor and a penchant for crying over his victims, all women, and the cops have no real leads over whose DNA they're pulling from the tears. One night, after clunking home in her high-heels from an evening out with the girls, lower-grade schoolteacher Anna (Milla Jovovich) spots the killer dicing up his latest victim. And, wouldn't you know it, he catches glimpse of her witnessing his latest conquest, and bolts after her. An accident occurs: soon after she steals a look at the killer's face, Anna stumbles, hits her head, and falls far out of his reach. She's safe; however, when she wakes up in the hospital with all her friends around, she can't recognize any of their faces -- and not in an amnesia kind of way. If she looks away even for a second, the facial features of her boyfriend Bryce completely change. This makes it pretty difficult for Anna to identify the storied killer, either in a line-up or, incidentally, simply on the street if he walked passed her.

Faces in the Crowd uses a real disorder, prosopagnosia ("face-blindness"), as the cornerstone for its tension, and the science behind it stands out as the most compelling feature of Julien Magnat's thriller-horror hybrid. Magnat, doubling as writer and clearly researched, cherry-picks scenarios that someone with the condition might experience, then ties them into his story: a schoolteacher unable to identify their students, a club-hopper unable to distinguish the date or group they're with, and a lover unable to recognize the face of the person they're having sex with ... even seeing their features change mid-act. He then explores the ways in which Anna copes with the condition, the little tactics -- standout feature recognition, body language, day-to-day articles of clothing -- taking center stage as it attempts to generate sympathy for the character, while outlining her post-incident turmoil. Great ideas course through the film's veins, a framework for an effective and bizarre whodunit.

While the science -- and the emotion cascading off of it -- draws us into Anna's maddening psyche, albeit too drawn-out in an effort to over-emphasize the severity of her situation, the elements that fill out the rest of Faces in the Crowd drag its competency way down. Its biggest problem is an intentional one: too many alternating faces and actors (sometimes driven by dodgy CG effects and obnoxious ADR), which makes for a discombobulated experience not grabbing enough to justify the erratic shifting. That doesn't go for all of them, since it amplifies the mood when Anna wipes the condensation from a bathroom mirror and emphatically curdles at the sight of multiple strange faces. It's her morphing friends, boyfriend, and the police officers hunting the killer that weakens it; Magnat puffs up their mannerisms to make voices and gestures bluntly identifiable, but he neglects to make them authentic moving pieces. I might've thrown a conniption fit had I heard one character say "chica" one more time. It doesn't help that the performances surrounding Jovovich are either uncomfortably inflated females, or bland and limp males.

Milla Jovovich herself, on the other hand, jibes with Faces in the Crowd enough as a fearful woman losing her grip on one of humanity's inborn senses, a diversion from the actress who typically handles resilient, in-control female roles. She allows her vulnerability to pour through as Anna; as she visits psychologists, interacts with an awkwardly-goateed police detective (Nip/Tuck's Julian McMahon), and frantically holes herself up on trains in fear of seeing the killer, her emotions-on-the-sleeve dramatic poise weaves together with the film's overt temper. Even when she's interacting with the misdirected, wooden characters that surround her, Jovovich's barefaced charisma comes through in a way that's not purely a rehash of her previous roles, though it's largely a reflection of her raw human temperament. There's no denying she's more put-together when navigating rough-and-tumble feminine parts -- Alice in Resident Evil and Violet in Ultraviolet, obviously, along with her assertiveness in Stone -- but her acting chops don't falter much here.

But as Anna's mental integrity plummets and Faces in the Crowd navigates through a melodramatic jungle gym of serial-killer twists and elevated complications with her prosopagnosia, Magnat's peculiar thriller creates frustrating, disorienting suspense that loses its pragmatic grip on the condition's facets. The original cleverness of the script gets lost in a series of progressive plot holes and second guesses late in the game -- particularly: "Wouldn't Anna be able to distinguish body structure, skin complexion, or hair style?" -- which ultimately boil to a harebrained climax that ventures outside the zone of tolerable suspension of disbelief. Once the curtain's pulled on the owner of the DNA that's been tear-dropped on a slew of victims, and who's been hounding Anne, it's hard not to feel ambivalence towards the humdrum reveal. We're shown so many faces throughout the course of the film that eventually viewing the killer's -- at least, this one -- doesn't really give it much of an identity.

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