Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Movie Review: The 24th Day

Bloody hell, that was one of the most intense films I've ever seen.

Enormous props and kudos to Tony Piccirillo, who weaves together a minimal, yet irresistably compelling story with only two men and a sealed room. The real strength of his script lies in its theatricality - I wasn't surprised to learn that "The 24th Day" originated on stage (Piccirillo also authored the original play), because all the emotional impact is concentrated in the dialogue between protagonists Dan and Tom. Minor excursions aside, the entire narrative is an extended conversation between the two men, going back and forth as a verbal manifestation of the power play between them. That sort of thing plays out extremely well in theatre.

The premise is, at once, delightfully simple and marvelously complex. Dan is lured to Tom's apartment with the promise of a one-night stand, only to learn that he'd slept with Tom in a drunk stupor five years ago. Now Tom has HIV and is convinced Dan gave it to him, so he takes Dan hostage and sends a vial of stolen blood to a lab for testing. In 48 hours, the results will arrive: if Dan has the virus, Tom will kill him. If Dan's clean, he goes free. This is the framework for everything that follows; as they wait for the results, Dan tries to talk his way out of his situation while Tom vacillates between dissecting Dan's life and slowly unraveling his own.

The script is tremendously clever, both on the macro and micro levels: in one scene, for example, Tom reveals a childhood wish to be an archaeologist, even as he digs at Dan to expose buried truths. Big-picture-wise, Piccirillo's characters are multi-layered enigmas who deceive each other and themselves, and you're never sure what they actually believe about themselves: is Dan really so sure that he automatically uses a condom when he has sex? Why did Tom sleep with Dan in the first place? The ambiguities and contradictions make us feel like Tom: we want to tie them both up and demand the truth, the pure truth, regardless of the fact that we can't verify anything at all. It's a poignant, engaging tale of revenge and desire and lies, and it all builds to a spectacular final scene that drives home the emotional climax. That, right there, is art, pure storytelling mojo.

The film adaptation stars James Marsden as Dan and Scott Speedman as Tom. I'm familiar with both actors from past works - Marsden from the X-Men films and "Heights", Speedman from "Felicity" and "Underworld". Needless to say, I didn't have very high expectations from either of them. The good news is that Speedman threw me for a loop; he plays Tom as this delightful mix of psychotic detachment, crushing despair and the tiniest sliver of lust, as if - despite everything - part of him still wants Dan. And his line delivery is laser-precise; when he tells Dan "Nothing else matters to me; if it comes back positive, I'm gonna kill you", I literally got goosebumps. Who knew he could do that? And why doesn't he do that more often?

Unfortunately, Marsden was the wrong choice for Dan. It's basically the same complaint I had about his character in "Heights" and his portrayal of Cyclops: the role requires someone with a degree of flexibility, an actor who can convincingly go from murderous to desperate to terrified and back, and Marsden is just too statuesque for something like that. I'll give him the backhanded compliment that he's not quite as "rigor mortis" here as he's been in the other films I mentioned - odd, considering "The 24th Day" was filmed after X2 and before "Heights" - but to make Dan's character work, you need someone with natural charisma, someone who can confuse the viewer into believing what he says. Ewan McGregor could've done it, or maybe even Noah Wyle (who played Dan in the original theatre production), but Marsden is transparent; if you look hard enough, you can tell when Dan is lying, which makes Tom's "interrogation" a bit pointless. Also, the closing scenes require someone who can hit those emotional high notes in rapid succession; Marsden gives it a good try, but the poor dear just doesn't win me over.

Still, I don't think a bit of spotty acting is enough to really bring this movie down a notch; in my opinion, it's definitely worth watching.