Unthinkable (2010)

(On DVD, January 2011) Direct-to-Video thrillers are usually exercises in cheap minimalism, bad dialogue, paycheck-grabbing C-list actors and little lasting impact.  But not always, and Unthinkable is that rare example of a D2V film that should have played in theatres… even if few people would have seen it.  Deliberately structuring its premise on a manipulative scenario, this is a horror-thriller hybrid that sets out to explore the moral choices in torturing a terrorist that may know where a few nuclear bombs are ticking away.  Carrie-Anne Moss is the audience’s stand-in as a FBI agent confronted with the lengths at which the US government will go in the name of national security; she’s faces down not only Michael Sheen as an uncommonly-prepared terrorist, but also Samuel L. Jackson as a “consultant” who’s as ruthless as he may be necessary.  Jackson’s performance is showy: At times threatening, charming, sociopathic and respectable, he’s the devilish imp whispering about the dark side that torture apologists are ready to embrace –and he’s easily one of the top reasons to see the film.  While Unthinkable eventually tips its hand toward the dramatic demands of the ticking-bomb scenario, it does so in a way that doesn’t shy from the moral stains that accompany the choice: there are at least two oh-cripes! moments where the film escalates well beyond what we’re used to see, and the constant horror-film atmosphere is as disturbing in its depiction of surgically-precise torture as anything else.  Suffice to say that film sticks in mind well after a good chunk of what’s in theatres fades away.  On the other hand, similar (yet far more gentle) films tacking contemporary moral issues such as Rendition, In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs all flopped spectacularly at the box-office.  If you listen really carefully to the intriguing DVD audio commentary, you can almost understand that the film’s producing company got in financial trouble in early 2009 and a direct-to-DVD releasing strategy became the only way for the film to reach a public.  No matter, though: The result is an unnerving mixture of techno-thriller premise with a horrific tone.  The DVD offers a solid audio commentary (stay tuned for the discussion of their very special “subject matter consultant”) and an alternate ending that’s even grimmer than the finished film.

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