A gunman slaughters a diner-full of strangers and the lucky survivors aren't feeling so lucky. Rowan Woods' ensemble drama based on Roy Freirich's best-seller Winged Creatures isn't a masterpiece, but it deserves better than the unceremonious release it's getting before a quick and dirty DVD turnaround. With the most award-nominated-est cast this side of Scorsese (including Forest Whitaker, Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Jennifer Hudson and Jackie Earle Hailey), it gives off the scent of a project crumpling under its own ambitions. But audiences who manage to catch it will spread—at worst—mediocre word of mouth.
Living to talk about witnessing a mass murder is a life-changer. The main five characters we meet are all instantly part of a club that no one else can enter—not mothers, boyfriends, or wives. But each life takes a different turn and none for the better, as though Freirich believes that the best way to purge pain is to replace it with fresher agonies.
For Bruce (Pearce), the doctor-on-the-scene who inadvertently held open the door for the killer, he's guilt-ridden that he couldn't save more lives and sets about poisoning his wife (Embeth Davidtz) so he can swoop in and heal her, becoming a perpetual hero. Carla (Kate Beckinsale), the waitress on duty, also feels like a failure. The single mom had chatted so long on her cell phone that the battery was too dead to call for help. That she walked out without a scratch makes her feel like a bystander in the worst tragedy of her life. But that Charlie (Forest Whitaker) survived a bullet in the neck makes the cancer-stricken man feel suddenly invincible—he immediately sets out for the casino where he's subconsciously aiming to prove he's still a failure. As for teens Jimmy (Josh Hutcherson) and Anne (Dakota Fanning) who crouched under the table while Anne's father (Tim Guinee) was blown away, Jimmy's so disturbed he can't even speak, while talking is all Anne can do—she's gone wildly Christian, proselytizing to anyone who will listen about her dad the martyr.
Frierich's hook is, well, killer. And Woods is patient with his story, letting small glances and tiny actions speak volumes. But the arc becomes too heavy and dense for his naturalistic approach to hold up. As the characters become starchier and more symbolic, we miss the raw, rattled uncertainty of the early scenes, which noted that even after witnessing a slaughter, there's still nowhere to go but home and inside your own thoughts as you go through the motions of eating, sleeping and talking to people who love you but will never understand. The sound design is especially gutting. I've never heard such loud bullets in my life; every diner flashback rattled my chair and pierced me with fear for the next blast. Then, I felt like I understood what the survivors had felt—at least, as best as I could—and that detail rang true in a film that fights its own destiny.
Peace Arch Entertainment
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Josh Hutcherson, Embeth Davidtz, Jackie Earle Haley and Jeanne Tripplehorn
Director: Rowan Woods
Writer: Roy Freirich
Producer: Robert Salerno
Rating: R for violent content, sexuality and language.
Running time: 100 min
Release date: July 31/NY, August 7/LA