Safe House

Safe House. Filmquest Pictures 1999.

Before watching the movie:

For all the actors I mowed through the filmographies of when I first realized I had the ability to discover and summon movies, somehow I never did that for Patrick Stewart. Most Star Trek regulars don’t seem to have enough high profile projects outside of Star Trek to get me to think in those kinds of terms.

So I first heard of this movie from a viral video recasting a clip of it as “Look at how jarringly out of character Captain Picard is!” I had to look up the source, and it sounded funny, but it’s heavily marketed as a thriller. Maybe it moves from comedy to thriller?

Also it seems to be a TV movie, which I try to avoid, but here it is anyway.

After watching the movie:

According to his daughter Michelle, Mace Sowell is a former federal bureaucrat plagued by paranoid fantasies and compulsions. According to Mace, he’s a retired Defense Intelligence Agency agent who used to do the dirty work of Admiral Thomas Michelmore, now sweeping presidential primaries, and his paranoia that Michelmore will have him killed to keep his secrets is no delusion. According to Mace’s psychiatrist Dr. Simon, his Alzheimer’s is undeniable. Mace trains his body and his mind to stay sharp, sleeps on a mat in his closet while leaving a dummy in his bed overnight, keeps caches of guns around his home, only leaves the house to go to the psychiatrist appointments his daughter forces on him (and then wearing a different disguise each time) and has his only friend Stu the pool cleaner spring surprise assassin drills on him, scaring away housekeepers. Deeply concerned for Mace, Michelle tells him he either has to agree to be committed to a home, or allow a full-time caregiver to stay with him. Of the applicants, only Andi Travers is neither scared away by Mace’s activities nor filtered out by Mace’s background check. At first, Mace is repulsed by Andi’s mere presence, her macrobiotic diet, and her attempts to tell him what to do, but eventually they begin to warm up to each other, and even become close. As his advancing Alzheimer’s dulls his mind, Mace fights for control of his life, for control of his cognitive function, and begins to not even be certain that his fears of impending assassination are real.

Everything I’ve seen recently about this movie calls it a thriller, but I don’t consider it such. It starts as a comedy, turns into a psychodrama, and then only in the last few minutes when it’s time to resolve everything does it really take on what I would consider a thriller plot. It also gets worryingly close to feeling like a romance at times, especially since Andi is younger than Mace’s daughter.

I have to admit it was difficult to read Patrick Stewart as the right choice for the role. That’s not to say he doesn’t sell every scene because of course he does, whether Mace is stoically training, throwing a manchild tantrum, or legitimately terrified and broken. I also don’t think it’s because he has types he can’t play outside of, though I do think he has specialties that this doesn’t always play to in every direction it’s going. I think my problem was that at the time, he seems too young to be playing an old man watching himself be torn apart by dementia. He’s in action hero shape and has a Hollywood skin care regimen, and I’m supposed to believe he’s in danger of getting put in assisted living?

What I see as the real crux of the movie is that I don’t think any version of reality is meant to be seen as The Truth until the climax. We identify with Mace, we trust Mace, but then Mace stops trusting himself and the audience right along with him has to question whether he made up the whole thing. It asks a lot of the same questions as They Might Be Giants, though Mace isn’t much of a Don Quixote type. He is, however, going to irrational lengths to keep himself safe from unseen attackers, which is alternately played for laughs and for sympathy. I think the ambiguity is what allows the fluidity of the tone to work, so I hate that all the summaries I found easily call it a thriller and describe the story in clear cut terms. Also the only key art (poster) I found for it that actually fits was too clearly part of a DVD box to use.

This movie is many different things, and does most of them well. What it is not, however, is something neatly fit in a box for an easy sell. It also has clear flaws, some of which are also selling points. I’d be interested in seeing other takes on similar ideas.


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