In fact, Jasmine is quite literally trembling on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she arrives in San Francisco to move in with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). A former New York socialite now in disgrace after her financier husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was arrested for fraud, Jasmine is struggling to come to terms with her headlong tumble down the social ladder. But while the material is there for a traditional, angst-ridden Woody Allen comedy about the clash between blue- and white-collar virtues and vices, Blue Jasmine is a rather dark affair. Jasmine, who has endured “Edison’s medicine” — electro-shock therapy — is prone to uncontrollable outbursts and emotional meltdowns, which tend to send her spinning back in time to experience her humiliation all over again. Meanwhile, her dismissive attitude towards Ginger’s beau, mechanic Chili (Bobby Cannavale), disrupts her sister’s previously stable relationship, which results in yet more trauma erupting in Jasmine’s life. It’s a potent cocktail, and Blanchett is in superb form as a kind of Blanche Dubois who is too screwed up by her neuroses to accept the kindness of strangers. Allen’s beautifully crafted narrative weaves past and present into a seamless tale, its downbeat tone leavened by occasional flashes of pitch-black humour, and the result is a sobering, thoughtful tragedy that could well propel Blanchett all the way to Oscar glory.
“Pray for the best, prepare for the worst,” is Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) mantra in Prisoners (15A). Keller’s young daughter Anna and her friend Eliza have been abducted on Thanksgiving, but the main suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is a man with the IQ of a 10-year-old child. Too terrified to talk, and unable to help Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) with his investigation, Alex is released — which is when Keller decides to take matters into his own hands. Written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is a dark, brooding thriller that asks a number of hard questions of the audience. Would you torture a man with a child’s mentality if you firmly believed he knew where your missing child was? And what do we become, as a society and as a species, when the rule of law, the human decencies, are stripped away? A bleak, rain-drenched Pennsylvania as autumn slips into winter is a pitch-perfect setting for such existential ruminations, and Villeneuve further enhances the gloom by employing drab colours and deliberately poor lighting. The performances are strong across the board, with Jackman, Gyllenhaal and Dano all in excellent form — Dano in particular is superb, by turns creepy and achingly vulnerable — and the story itself is almost unbearably engrossing. The film loses something of its nightmarish quality in the final third as the momentum builds towards a traditional chase-and-catch denouement, but even so it’s a powerful moral fable that will linger long in the memory.
Runner Runner (15A) opens with Princeton student Richie Furst (Justin Timberlake) being cheated — or so he believes — by a gambling website. Outraged, Richie flies down to Costa Rica, where the website is hosted, in order to confront the online mastermind Ivan Block (Ben Affleck). Impressed by Richie’s knowledge of gambling, the magnanimous Ivan offers Richie a job as marketing consultant — but there’s more than a few snakes to be found in this particular paradise, and at least one potential femme fatale (Gemma Arterton). Brad Furman’s thriller starts out in promising form, juxtaposing the superficial glamour of the fabulous setting with Costa Rica’s sordid underbelly and quietly subverting a number of the genre’s clichés. Timberlake and Affleck both make for very likeable and charismatic rogues for the first half, but once Richie is compromised by an approach by an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie), the characters revert to stereotype and the story quickly becomes a conventional tale of betrayal, double-cross and cartoonish villainy. Overall Runner Runner is a solid thriller, but it delivers much less than it initially promises.