REVIEW: Stephen Dorff Almost Gets a Break in Brake
If Stephen Dorff’s career never soared as high as he might have liked, the fact that it’s getting more interesting all the time must be some consolation. For someone who might not be considered a big movie star, Dorff has the distinct movie-star habit of seeming to play himself, even when he’s playing a big movie star. In Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and now in Brake, he appears to be the same flannel- and faded jeans-clad heartbreaker from the Aerosmith years. Dorff had the persona in place from the start; it’s the pictures that got small.
Maybe never smaller than Brake, a claustrophobic thriller set almost entirely in a clear plastic box. But small finally feels big for Dorff, who plays a government agent named Jeremy and has both the film and its coffin-like quarters to himself. Director Gabe Torres, working from a script by first-time feature writer Timothy Mannion, opens the film with a mystery: Jeremy doesn’t know where he is, why he’s there, or what the meaning of the digital clock that keeps counting down and resetting in front of him might be. We react with Dorff, who is bathed in the deep red glow of the clock, for the first 10 minutes of the film: Is this a dream? Existential art film? Kidnapping melodrama? Elaborate torture-fetish flick?
A little bit of all of those, actually, though Jeremy’s sharp distrust of a second victim he communicates with through a conveniently supplied CB radio makes it plain that he’s some kind of government agent and has become embroiled in a terrorist plot. It does not give too much away to say that he is being tortured to forfeit the location of the president’s emergency bunker, and dude is not about to crack. Within the first half hour he’s branded with a cigarette lighter (turns out he’s in the trunk of a vehicle), shot in the leg during a police stop, and swarmed by bees. Dorff, whose pug boyishness never quite wore off, is often shot from between his knees or up his nose; at times ours feels like the vantage of a trusty canine sidekick -- alert but helpless, searching our hero for a sign of what will happen next. If we’re never drawn in far enough to wonder what we might do in a Plexiglass box at the end of the world, Dorff can sell stock action-hero lines (“Somebody’s fucking with us” he tells his co-victim. Why? “That’s what I’m going to find out”) with enough moody grit to hold our attention.
Torres sets himself a trap with this conceit, one he only half outwits. The sense of confinement is never overwhelming but neither is it particularly well-defined. The direction is clear and assured but instead of notching upwards, once it is established the intrigue of the situation begins to wane. When Jeremy gains access to a cell phone a pattern develops: Calls are made -- to his estranged wife, fellow agents, a 911 operator -- and then cut off, often after a plea is made for Jeremy to just tell the terrorists what they want to know. By the time he's shouting about having taken a government oath the central dramatic tension -- will he or won’t he? -- has been fully wrung out. As it becomes clear that a horrific, systematic attack is unfolding just outside of the box, the story’s organic tensions get mixed up with its allusions, which sometimes -- specifically the desperate, doomed 911 conversations -- feel a little cheap.
A national security breach playing out like a personal security nightmare is a great premise with lots of places to go. Confining them to a Lucite casket might have concentrated the themes into a higher potency, but Mannion’s script doesn’t feel quite up to the task. Although we can practically smell Jeremy, and Dorff’s vague, faded diva vibe works well for him as the long-suffering hostage, as written the character is too distant and unresolved to make such an intimate story work -- never moreso than when Jeremy’s personal life is invoked. Instead of dazzling, the twisty double ending sets the slight but ultimately critical emotional detachment of the preceding ninety minutes into greater relief. It wouldn’t go so far as to say it feels like you went through Jeremy’s ordeal for nothing, but I did wish I had come to know as much about Dorff’s character as I did about the size and shape of his nostrils.