The Bone Collector and Oxygen (review)

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The Sounds of Silence

The Silence of the Lambs is one of the most effective thrillers ever made (and the only film of its kind ever to win an Academy Award for Best Picture). As often as it’s imitated, no movie has come close to replicating the intensity, the dread, and the feeling that the viewer is in the company of evil… until now.

I’m not referring to The Bone Collector, despite what some people are saying. I’m talking about a little independent film called Oxygen, which isn’t likely to play for long in the few theaters it opens in (in fact, it’s already slated for a January video release). Both films feature rich New Yorkers targeted by madmen and young female cops caught up in cases that could make or break them (though in different ways). But that’s where the similarities end.
The silence of the bones
Even if ads for the movie weren’t touting the connection, it would be impossible not to compare The Bone Collector with The Silence of the Lambs. A young woman is plucked from obscurity to assist a legendary investigator in tracking down a madman. Time, of course, is of the essence. Here, the woman is beat-walking cop Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie: Playing God). When she makes a grim discovery — the corpse of a man, his mutilated hand pushing up from the gravel under which he is buried — in a rundown section of Manhattan, she gets, against her own strong objections, roped into working with Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington: The Siege, Fallen). A famed forensics specialist, Linc was paralyzed on the job and now the only movement he has below the neck is in one index finger, which he uses to control a sophisticated computer system that allows him to continue to work.

Impossible it may be not to compare Bone to Silence, but there’s no comparison. The Bone Collector, unlike its obvious inspiration, is perfunctory, predictable, and gratuitously gory.

The dead man was a wealthy New York developer, and his wife is still missing. Though Linc is no longer a cop, the NYPD needs his expertise in cracking the case, and Linc overcomes his reluctance and agrees to help — which is convenient, because Linc sees that the carefully arranged scene of the burial not only contains clues to the wife’s whereabouts and the scheduled time of her death, but also seems geared to Linc’s specific and deep knowledge of turn-of-the-century New York crime. The killer is playing nasty games with the cops. And director Phillip Noyce is playing nasty games with the audience.

Noyce and screenwriter Jeremy Iacone manufacture cheap suspense that has nothing to do with the characters or the necessities of plot and everything to do with manipulating the audience into jumping out of their seats. We get to watch the killer — masked, for no reason except to hide his identity from the audience — cruelly prepare his victims for their grisly deaths. And then, after they’re dead, we watch Amelia, in radio contact with bedridden Linc, walk alone through dark, creepy, mazelike crime scenes, her horrified eyes (and hence us) unable to look away from the butchered victims, while we’re meant to wonder if the killer will pop out of nowhere and attack her.

The fact that Amelia is the object of such patently fabricated suspense is inexcusable on several levels. Storywise, no purpose other than plot convenience is served by Linc’s insistence that Amelia be the first and only cop on the scene. It’s highly unlikely that the NYPD would allow a mere consultant like Linc to dictate to them, and that they’d let an amateur — no matter how naturally talented — handle on her own such a crucial job as collecting forensics evidence in such an important case. The Silence of the Lambs‘ beginner, Clarice Starling, was brought into her case as a last desperate measure. Here, the beginner is the first choice? Only in the movies.

But even worse, Noyce’s milking of the classic thriller conceit of a young, lone, pretty (read: helpless) female in the path of obvious danger totally undermines the character of Amelia herself. Tough, outspoken, and streetsmart, Amelia is not a person to be trifled with, and Jolie does her best to make her believable. Noyce, though, kicks the legs out from under her, figuratively and literally, by treating her as a traditional woman in trouble. But then, even the publicity material for the movie describes her several times as “feisty,” a word that to me disparages female ‘tude by relegating it to the realm of the cutesy. Meg Ryan is “feisty.” Amelia tries to be no more “feisty” than Clarice Starling, but Noyce won’t let her.

Amelia isn’t the only victim of Noyce’s sadistic menacing. The Bone Collector menaces its audience, too, with gruesomeness that serves only to gross out the audience while we wait for the killer to reveal himself for reasons that have nothing to do with the investigation into his crimes. Shortly into the movie, I pointed out a random background character to my friend and joked, “He’s the killer.” I was being sarcastic, but I wasn’t far wrong. Bone is of that breed of by-the-numbers thrillers in which you can guess who the killer is this way: Find the actor credited at the beginning of the movie who has the least amount of screen time and the fewest lines. He is guaranteed to jump out 15 minutes before the end credits roll, cold and sinister when before he was warm and friendly, to attack the chief investigator while he explains his evil plan.

Yawn. The Bone Collector is aptly named: it’s a collection of thriller-movie tics so old they should be put to rest. We’ve seen this all before.

The silence of the coffin
Oxygen isn’t the perfect film The Silence of the Lambs is, but it damn well tries. Effectively creepy, it’s so disturbing that it’s hard to watch in places. And not because writer/director Richard Shepard pours gallons of stage blood over his actors or treats us to anatomically correct mutilations — there’s very little of that to be found here. What’s frightening about Oxygen is the horrifying glimpse we get into the mind of a killer.

On a sticky summer day in New York City, Frances Hannon (Laila Robins: True Crime) finds herself being chatted up by the handsome young man (Adrien Brody: The Thin Red Line) who stopped to pet her dog. It’s an ordinary city scene, until the man produces a biscuit for the dog — this was a setup. The man pulls out a gun and asks Frances to get in the car at curbside. In broad daylight, Frances is kidnapped right off the sidewalk.

Frances’s nightmare is only beginning. Her kidnapper takes her into the distant woods, strips her down to her underwear, and buries her in a wooden box with maybe a day’s worth of air. If her wealthy husband meets his ransom demand, the kidnapper will tell him where his wife is buried. If he calls the cops, or takes his time getting the money… well, Frances gets the picture.

Her desperate, heartbreaking screams as she’s being hammered into her box in the ground are awful to witness, but even worse is the video ransom note the kidnapper sends to Hannon (James Naughton). As an understandably terrified Frances relays the kidnapper’s demands, she rages at her husband, over and over, not to screw this up. In retrospect, it seems a natural reaction for Frances to transfer her anger from the kidnapper onto her husband, but at the time, her fury set me back — what movies usually offer us in this kind of situation is a tearful pleading from the victim, something pitiful, designed to elicit nothing but compassion. But here Shepard toys a bit with our feelings of sympathy for Frances, daring us, in a way, to continue to worry for her. Shepard’s dare works, making the character of Frances more real and hence even more worthy of our empathy. And this twist made me realize that I could expect something different and original from Oxygen.

The kidnapper is captured picking up the ransom money — Hannon (screwing up?) ignores the kidnapper’s demand not to involve the police — and the bulk of the movie takes place during intense interrogation scenes in which the NYPD and later the FBI attempt to squeeze the location of Frances’s burial from the kidnapper, who likens himself to magician Harry Houdini. “Harry” is not taken in by the cops’ scare tactics — Dylan Baker (Celebrity) as an FBI agent has a riveting scene in which he offers Harry his take on the death penalty — and he’s enjoying toying with the cops.

But then Harry finds a kindred spirit in cop Madeline Foster (Maura Tierney: Instinct, Liar Liar). Though she is married to her boss, a police captain (Terry Kinney), she has a lover (Olek Krupa) who is sadistically manipulative, taunting her emotionally and even, at her obvious request (though it isn’t depicted onscreen), burning her arm with cigarettes. Harry sees the burns and recognizes them for what they are. “You and I like a little pleasure with our pain,” he says to her, and from then on refuses to talk to anyone but Maddy.

What makes Oxygen so absorbing is the byplay between Harry and Maddy. While she tries to interrogate him, he tortures her psychologically — as Hannibal Lechter had his quid pro quo with Clarice Starling, so Harry has his with Maddy. The depth of Harry’s depravity is startling — but then, so is Maddy’s. Their scenes together are frequently extremely unpleasant, but in the best way — movies should make us uncomfortable sometimes, make us think about things we’d rather not think about, like the very narrow distinction, often, between cops and criminals.

Brody and Tierney are terrific here, and if Oxygen had any potential for a large audience, I’d say they both give starmaking performances. Brody offers us a frighteningly friendly and calm, hypnotically compelling psychopath, and Tierney is convincing as a woman so self-destructive and full of self-hatred that, in one disquieting scene, she can barely look at herself in a mirror.

Oxygen is worth seeking out, even if you have to wait for the video.

[reader comments on this review]

The Bone Collector
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated R for strong violent content including grisly images, and for language
official site | IMDB

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for violence and language

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