Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was an American mystery writer of novels and short stories who came to fame in the 1950's with "Strangers on a Train" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Her most-popular character, the amiable antihero-murderer Tom Ripley, became so famous, she wrote four more books about him (but he's not in the movie reviewed here, more's the pity). Filmmakers have also loved her work, and even one of her lesser efforts, "The Cry of the Owl," which she wrote in 1962, has now seen two screen appearances, first in 1987 from the French New Wave director Claude Chabrol and in 2009 in this direct-to-video production from British writer-director Jamie Thraves ("Negative," "The Low Down"). Unfortunately, neither filmmaker could make much of Ms. Highsmith's somewhat dour, slow-moving book.
Highsmith's stories aren't really mysteries, you see, or thrillers. There is seldom any mystery involved, and there are precious few thrills. They are more like psychological crime dramas, where the personalities of the players are foremost. So it is with "The Cry of the Owl."
What's more, as with most Highsmith stories, this one takes forever to get to the point. Since the keep case summarizes the whole first half of the movie, I don't feel I'm giving anything away in briefly outlining the setup: A man named Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine) is in the process of a divorce, prompted by his wife, Nickie (Caroline Dhavernas). Robert, dejected and depressed, moves from the city to a suburban town in upstate New York, where he works for an aeronautics company. His oppressed frame of mind drives him to do a weird thing, though: He begins spying on a young neighbor woman, Jenny Thierolf (Julia Stiles), who lives in the countryside not far from his place. She, coincidentally, is the process of breaking up her boyfriend, Greg Wyncoop (James Gilbert).
One night while Robert is standing outside Jenny's house, Jenny spots him, comes out, and confronts him. He apologizes, and, then, for reasons unknown, she invites him in. From that point on, the tables turn. He no longer spies on her, but she begins stalking him. She follows him everywhere, makes passes at him, and even professes her love for him.
Jenny's ex-boyfriend is insanely jealous and comes after Robert, attacking him one night. Robert escapes, but shortly afterwards, Greg goes missing. The police suspect foul play, and guess who is the number-one suspect.
And there you have it: The setup for the rest of the plot. What's happened to the boyfriend? Is Robert a murderer? Should we care?
Yes, should we care? That's the crux of the problem. With Highsmith's Ripley stories, we have a despicable character, to be sure, a murderer with almost no conscience; yet he is a charming rogue, a clever, ingenious, charismatic fellow we can't help but root for, even when we know we shouldn't. It's what makes the Ripley yarns so compelling, like those heist capers where we know that robbery is bad but we applaud the perpetuators just the same. But that isn't the case here. Robert Forrester is a mess. He's a disgruntled, neurotic individual, dishevelled, unshaven, unkempt, a person with whom it is hard to empathize. We have to wonder if he was always this sullen and bedraggled, or if it only occurred when his wife left him. And why don't his bosses say something to him about his behavior and appearance at work? I mean, the guy has to make public presentations to representatives of other companies. Anyway, when odd things happen to odd people, it doesn't exactly come as a surprise.
Nor are any of the supporting players of any comfort to the viewer. Jenny is as peculiar as Robert is. Why does she become so attached to this voyeur who has been spying on her? She hints that it's foreordination, some sort of cosmic destiny that the two of them met. Perhaps it's an existential question of fate. Maybe Jenny and Robert were meant for each other, despite the circumstances of their meeting. Which only confuses poor Robert all the more, because he, too, sees that she is weirder, lonelier, and more screwed up psychologically than he is. Then there's Jenny ex-boyfriend, Greg, who appears downright psychotic, going off in a rage when he sees Jenny's new involvement with Robert. And there's Robert's ex-wife, a cruel, mean-spirited person if ever there was one. Maybe he should be glad to be rid of her instead of acting so morose.
The opening shots set the mood of the story, the scene taking place at night with our hardly knowing what's happening it's so dimly lit. This is going to be a very dark, brooding film, an unsmiling film, with little room for the sly wit that, say, an Alfred Hitchcock (who directed Highsmith's "Strangers on a Train") might have injected into it.
While it's a slow, unsmiling picture, the drama does unfold in fascinating little morsels, keeping one awake most of the way. And there are enough twists to keep things going, even if at least one big plot point relies on a highly unlikely contrivance. Moreover, regardless of the fact that there isn't as much tension in the movie as the story probably deserves, the understated Bernard Herrmann-like, Hitchcockian music helps at least to maintain one's interest temporarily.
One intriguing sidelight: "The Cry of the Owl" is a joint British-French-American production (BBC Films, MACT Productions, Myriad Pictures) made by a British director and starring a British actor playing an American in an American setting, filmed in Canada. Whew!
The video reproduction is the best part of the package, the movie presented in its original 2.35.1 ratio in anamorphic widescreen. The colors are excellent, very natural; the black levels are solid; and the definition, especially upscaled, is superb--sharp and clear--for an SD product. About the only three minor weaknesses are that (1) the darker scenes tend to look a bit murky, losing detail; (2) the brighter scenes can display a degree of glossiness; and (3) the entire movie reveals a touch more inherent print grain than one normally sees. However, none of the weaknesses are particularly distracting.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 might just as well be monaural for the work it does. This is a very quiet film, so don't count on any major sonic wonders. The soundtrack exhibits only a modest front-channel stereo spread, very little surround activity, and a limited frequency range and dynamic response. Midrange dialogue shows up cleanly, though, so you won't miss any of the movie's major plot points.
Nothing. Zip. We get a few previews of other attractions at start-up and in the main menu; nineteen scene selections; English as the only available spoken language; and English subtitles. Well, OK, that was a little more than zip. Very little.
The biggest issue I have with "The Cry of the Owl" is that it has no one in it to care about. Its characters are so fraught with faults, it's hard to relate to any of them or become at all sympathetic toward them. It's not an entirely boring or offensive movie, just a rather distant and detached one. Having read many of Highsmith's books, I can understand the difficulty in bringing them to the screen, especially if the filmmaker is trying to be entirely faithful to the source material.