Friday, March 24, 2006

What's inside the 'Inside Man'?

Its been a while since there has been a really thought provoking and interesting drama or thriller that does not rely on gimics, special effects, or large impressive sets or scenic vistas, but we have one now in Spike Lee's sparkling new film 'Inside Man'. Filmed largely in a single bank location and its surroundings this film is long on story and acting, and does not require razzamatazz to carry the film along. It is an example of old fashioned film-making at its best, and what a cast it has! We have Christopher Plummer as the regal Mr. Chase the owner of the Manhattan Bank in question, we have Willem Defoe as a police captain, we have Denzel Washington as the dashing Detective Frazier, we have Jody Foster as Ms. White the deal maker and intervention specialist, and we have Clive Owen as the mastermind bad guy--- or is he?

In one sense this drama is a morality play, as we see how different persons, in a crisis, are prepared to compromise their ethics either to survive, or profit or get revenge, or rescue hostages. But this is no ordinary hostage movie, because the bandit in question is not actually a bankrobber, nor has he any desire to kill any of those trapped in the bank when it is taken over by Clive Owen's gang.

The tension in the narrative is not caused by the question of whether the hostages will be released or not, for periodically throughout the movie we see them being debriefed by Frazier after they have been freed. No, the drama is driven by a series of related questions, for example--- What exactly do these bank robbers want? What are they after? It is clearly not money, or attention, or ransom for hostages. And what is it that Mr. Chase has hidden in that secret safety deposit box in that bank of his, which he is prepared to do anything to make sure is not revealed? But there is so much more.

Lee also explores racism and bigotry of all sorts on and off the NY police force throughout the movie, but he does it with a light touch. At one point Frazier (i.e. Washington) listening to the complaints of police brutality by a Indian Sikkh employee of the bank, complains his rights were trampled on and asks when he and his religion will be respected (he keeps asking for his turban to be returned). When he can't get even this, Frazier points out that at least one thing is going his way-- "I bet you don't have any trouble getting a cab", because of course there are so many Indian cab drivers in Manhattan. New York is seen as the melting pot that is more like a salad bowl where all the different nationalities exist side by side, but without blending together very much.

In an ensemble cast of this kind one could have wished perhaps for a bit longer film so Jodie Foster and Christopher Plummer had even more opportunity to shine. There is no question but that Washington is the star of the show, but there are many wonderful bit parts and scenes which enrich the story, not the least of which is the 9 year old African American kid from Brooklyn who gives both the bankrobbers and the police his 'shtick" without fear. Would that there were more movies that were long on story and acting, and short on gimics.

But at the end of the day there is a further profound question underlying this film. Does a lifetime of good works, make up for some hideous sin of the past or should we say 'be sure your sins will find you out'? The supposed bad guy is the one who raises the deeper questions about love and truth. Spike Lee is smart enough and respects his audience enough to not tie up all the loose ends. And several aspects of the movie can be debated. But this is the sign of a good story which scares up more rabbits than it chases down. It will take a lot for there to be a better drama than this one this year. Ron Howard and the Da Vinci Code crew has just been put on notice.


NathanColquhoun said...

I just got back from this movie, and i couldn't resist and watched V for Vandetta also.

both amazing movies.
Good review.

Nathan Colquhoun

Dan McGowan said...

Thanks for the review of this film - I have wanted to see it and now I will. I do have a question - both my sons (age 15 and 13) want to see it... what do you think??

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Dan:

I think it is probably fine for your kids to go. The only thing really iffy is the language at the beginning of the movie-- the f word is prominent, but otherwise rather violence and sex free.


Phil said...

I saw this Friday night as well. I thought Lee showed a light touch from some of his usual directing gimmicks and found the mystery really appealing and the tension very nicely handled.

The acting is superb by all the major players, as well as the secondary ones. People looked like they had fun in doing it and the audience I saw it with really reacted nicely to the reveals.

The question you bring up is a great one, Ben. And for the Christian, I think the answer is yes. One deed (taking on Christ) does wipe away a lifetime of sin, but that doesn't mean we're free of the consequences of them.

Phil's Blog
Post Restorationist Radio Podcast

Frank Walton said...

Personally, I thought the film had the audience waiting a little too much for a half-closed ending. I didn't feel too much closure at all. I thought Roger Ebert's review hit it right on the nose. I enjoyed the performance though. Oh, and if you look closely you'll see a picture of George Bush behind Arthur Case's (Christopher Plummer) desk. Obviously, a cheap-shot.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Frank:

There was also a picture of Plummer with Margaret Thatcher in that scene as well. Their probably real since Plummer has won many awards for his charitable and other sorts of work.

Has anybody figured out what the hole in the bank floor was for, and while we are at, what that brief scene where the mastermind reveals his true name to some videographer was all about?

I actually thought the closure was good, at least for Washington and Foster.


Phil said...

Ben, when they dug the hole, they called it a "shi.hole." I think that's what it was literally for. For Owen's character to put his excrement for the week he was in there.

I felt the interview with Owen was just an affectation for the audience. Not a "real" part of the story.

Tenax said...

Wow. Am I glad to find this blog. I can't even say. Thanks to Chris Price for linking.

My wife and I saw the movie last night: yes, I think the hole was for excrement; they appear to uncover a sewer pipe and it seems possible they 'tapped into' it with some kind of temporary toilet; but then, plumbing is not my strength.

We enjoyed the film, but I was left wondering: why couldn't the police spot the 'bad' bank hostages? The questions would be simple for everyone who came out of the bank: what's your account number, how much money do you have in the bank, why were you here, where did you leave from, who saw you last that morning before you came to the bank, where is your car or transit ticket? It seems they could have sifted everyone on the scene and figured out who the perps were just by asking the right questions about where they were earlier in the day and why they were in the bank; of course, the police chief did tell the investigators to cool it.

I'm probably getting too picky.

I wonder if the character actually gives the diamond to his girlfriend?

Hello to Dr. Worthington. I'm a Christian who struggles with my faith and just getting my feet wet in NT criticism; I'm embarassed to admit I hadn't heard of you, but reading your work here and that of some of the other Christian posters...I am impressed. Truthfully, I am moved. I'll be back.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Troy:

Welcome. Glad to have you on board. I would think actually that the matter is more complex in regard to sifting the hostages. I mean how many times have we had to go into a strange bank and get money on a credit card. You wouldn't need to have an account to have a reason for being there. But the questioning of the rabbi deserves to be reviewed---- what was that about diamonds.



P.S. check out the website itself----

KentF said...

better late than never - finally watched the movie last night on dvd - your review stuck with me for months. Excellent movie - the dialogue was awesome. I might also recommend Antwone Fisher - Denzel's first directing film.