In the great tradition of the thriller, the new movie Derailed depends, at least initially, upon the notion that mere chance governs the universe, that men and women live and die according to no discernible rules and perhaps for no particular purpose. It also suggests, somewhat paradoxically, that a kind of fate flows from some apparently haphazard and arbitrary incident, engendering an inexorable series of further events. At the same time, the movie shows that luck and chance operate capriciously, even allowing their victim to reverse a deadly destiny through strength of will and violent action.
In Derailed the random hand of fate chooses Charles Schine (Clive Owen), a Chicago advertising executive, who through a series of minor accidents meets Lucinda Harris (Jennifer Aniston), an attractive young woman who works at a brokerage firm, on a commuter train. They strike up an acquaintance and, after several trips to the city, move naturally toward something more than friendship. When they finally drift, after considerable hesitation and a number of drinks, to the point of sex, disaster strikes --- an armed robber breaks into their sleazy hotel room, pistol whips Charles, rapes Lucinda, and takes their money, credit cards, and of course, all the information he needs to disrupt Charles's life.
From the moment of the attack, Charles's whole existence spins out of control; in addition to his burden of guilt and shame over his betrayal and helplessness, he suffers the threat of exposure from the robber, a vicious, cunning Frenchman named Phillipe Laroche (Vincent Cassel), who demands ever more exorbitant payments for his silence. A con man as well as a thug, Laroche even visits Charles's home, charming his wife and daughter and demanding his life savings, one hundred thousand dollars laboriously accumulated to pay for his diabetic daughter's treatment. When he desperately attempts to thwart the blackmailer, the scheme ignites a chain of shocking violence that ultimately explodes into something like a bloodbath.
After establishing its entirely orthodox thriller situation, the picture develops a number of unusual and often quite unpleasant subjects and themes. Its depiction of an ordinary man suddenly and brutally victimized, threatened with the destruction of his entire life, suggests the familiar, simpleminded notion of terrible punishment for a sexual transgression; it also reveals to Charles and the viewer a hitherto unsuspected reality, the precariousness of existence, the awful vulnerability of any individual to the random, senseless cruelty of chance. Once the assault shatters the foundations of Charles Schine's normal world, a series of increasingly violent acts follows in an inevitable pattern, demonstrating the consequences of any action, and showing Charles the difficulty of righting a wrong or repairing a rent in the fragile fabric of destiny.
When Charles discovers, again through chance, further dimensions to his predicament and its causes, he finally resolves to take action, which translates, appropriately, into violence and bloodshed. Despite its apparent simplicity and its crude logic of cause and effect, the picture's plot accumulates complexity as it advances, taking a number of surprising twists and turns, displaying once again other possibilities of action, and in its deft handling of a couple of important objects, even some ways to impose a pattern of order and unity on the random course of events.
Clive Owen's dark, impassive face makes him a suitable victim, but his unvarying expression, monotone speech, and emotional stolidity hardly suit the range his part demands. Though too often she must match Owen's glumness, Jennifer Aniston projects a nice combination of smarts and sexiness. In a part that naturally contrasts with the leading characters, however, Vincent Cassel dominates his scenes, playing one of the most vicious and hateful villains in recent cinema, and unlike most of his ilk, managing it without caricature or exaggeration.
The movie proceeds with a terrific sense of urgency, moving through a series of shocks and surprises, showing the constant presence of physical danger in the hostility of almost all the characters. More important, it generates genuine tension, a kind of escalating anxiety born out of the protagonist's guilt and fear, his increasing desperation, and the apparent hopelessness of his plight.
Derailed excitingly demonstrates the precariousness of ordinary life, the flimsiness of the veil that obscures the deep abyss that yawns just beyond our view.
Derailed (R), directed by Mikael Håfström, is playing at Canandaigua Theatres, Culver Ridge 16, Eastview 13, Geneseo Theatres, Greece Ridge 12, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Cinema, Tinseltown