English-language thriller with sci-fi overtones from Spanish first-timer Jorge Dorado represents the first outing for Jaume Collet-Serra’s Ombra Films.
“We’re playing those mind games together,” sang John Lennon, and on the evidence of Mindscape, its director, writers and characters must want to join in too. A slick and mostly rewarding mystery whose action is divided up between the outer and inner worlds, this high-concept tale of a man able to inhabit the memories of others is actually a more typical thriller than such a description makes it sound, failing to strike out in a new direction of its own and lacking both the range of say Inception and the emotional undertow of The Sixth Sense, two of several films in whose shadow it lies. But that said, as a thriller it works just fine.
As the director chosen to launch producer/director Jaume Collet-Serra’s Ombra Films, conceived to provide Spanish talent with a U.S. base for making genre movies, Jorge Dorado takes his place in a lengthening list of Spanish directors transitioning to the English language and to US genres. Box office following its late January release in Spain has been solid rather than spectacular, suggesting that Mindscape is not about to follow some of its more illustrious predecessors all the way to the top, but there are enough fans of Euro-Spanish horror to ensure that a U.S. release would be rewarded by interest at the more commercial end of the indie market, with a bigger small-screen audience waiting in the wings.
Like a lie detector on legs, John Washington (Mark Strong) is a memory detective, someone blessed (and cursed) with the ability to enter and observe other people’s memories. Though the implications of such a sci-fi-sounding profession are far-reaching, Mindscape focuses on just one – the detective’s ability to solve crimes.
If for nothing else, the sheer quantity of cigarettes he smokes signal from the outset that Washington is a troubled guy. Having been off work for two years following a trauma whose cause is shown during the impressively put-together opening sequence, he is instructed by boss Sebastian (Brian Cox) to reveal what’s really going on in the mind of Anna (the interestingly dark Taissa Farmiga, The Bling Ring), a troubled, hunger-striking sixteen year-old described by her wealthy mother Michelle (Saskia Reeves) as “gifted”, and by her stepfather Robert (Richard Dillane) as “haunted”. It is testimony to the quality of Farmiga’s performance that Anna is quite clearly both.
Anna has the ability to predict what other people can say, a talent which Washington foolishly dismisses as a party trick. Some of the film’s strongest sequences are in the tremblingly tense verbal sparring matches between the pair, which play like a diluted reversal of the Lecter/Clarice duets in The Silence of the Lambs: “I’m not a sociopath”, she coolly informs him on their first meeting, “I’m just smart enough to think like one”. Disconcertingly for him, they are more alike than he could have imagined.
All’s not well inside Anna’s head, and her family is not the Waltons. Her effectively-rendered memories are violent and eerie, involving her witnessing of her stepfather having sex with Judith (Indira Varma), the woman assigned to observe Anna through surveillance cameras installed in her room: she is a prisoner in her own home.
The questions multiply after Judith is pushed down the stairs by an unknown someone: did Anna push her, which would in fact make her a sociopath and not a victim of childhood trauma? Who was responsible for the unexplained attempted homicide of three girls at Anna’s school? And is the role of Anna’s Spanish art teacher Tom Ortega (Alberto Ammann, best known to non-Spanish viewers as the rookie in Cell 211) only to pull Spanish viewers into theaters, or does he have some darker purpose?
New information is slowly but skillfully trickled out as Washington starts to take Anna’s side; the memories come thick and fast, but it’s unclear whether Washington is interpreting them correctly. After about an hour the questions have achieved a satisfying intensity, and the script does good work in unraveling them in a broadly coherent way, featuring a couple of late twists – though the stakes for which Washington is fighting are perhaps not high enough to generate maximum suspense.
The only fully realized characters in this, the accomplished first script from sibling writing team Guy and Martha Holmes, are Washington and Anna, but between them they generate enough interest to carry the load. Farmiga neatly straddles the ambiguities that Anna’s character has been loaded with, primarily that between innocence and danger. Strong, interestingly cast against type, still looks every inch the bony-skulled bad guy, but he’s plausibly human – professionally an expert, he’s emotionally a wreck. Whether it’s down to his emotional burdens or to sloppy scripting, Washington is actually not a very good detective at all, so that when payoff time comes around and the details start to matter, attentive viewers will have arrived a good twenty minutes before he does.
Understandably, the word “Inception” has been liberally scattered through the literature on Mindscape, but the film is an altogether smaller-scale proposition: although there are plenty of affirmative adjectives to describe Dorado’s film, “breathtaking” and “complex” would not be two of them. Though it’s clever enough, this is not a film that calls for a second viewing to see how all the parts fit into place, advancing as it does with a slightly mechanical regularity between the present and Anna’s memories, and although later on the appearance of unexpected persons in recollections does complicate things somewhat, it’s hesitantly rather than confidently followed through.
The feel of memories is a notoriously slippery thing to capture on film, and DP Oscar Faura’s (The Impossible) visualization of them draws heavily on well-established filmic motifs to render them effectively here – oddball angles and grainy shadowed images, supported by a battery of eerie electronic noises and (non-too originally) a chilling nursery song are all brought into play.
At another level, Mindscape does play into a range of contemporary fears about pedophilia and about false memories of child abuse, but without ever taking them into the realm of the genuinely unsettling. Building the story around such potent themes suggest that even as a genre item, this could have been a film with some real emotional punch, but the script is happy to satisfyingly work out its plot and just leave it there.
Lucas Vidal’s busy orchestral score feels excessive, and at some points something lower key would have acted to supplement the tension rather than merely signaling it.
Production: Antena 3 Films, Safran Company, Ombra Films, StudioCanal, Roxbury Pictures
Cast: Mark Strong, Taissa Farmiga, Brian Cox, Noah Taylor, Saskia Reeve, Richard Dillane, Alberto Ammann, Indira Varma, Julio Perillan
Director: Jorge Dorado
Screenwriter: Guy Holmes , Martha Holmes
Producers: Jaume Collet-Serra, Miguel Angel Faura, Mercedes Gamero , Peter Safran , Juan Sola
Executive producers: Maria Contreras, Tom Drumm, Nathalie Marciano
Director of photography: Oscar Faura
Production designer: Laia Ateca
Editor: Jaime Valdueza
Music: Lucas Vidal
Wardrobe: Clara Bilbao
Sales: Studio Canal
No rating, 95 minutes