When the abiding image from your film, one that is favored at lingering length, is of a slack-jawed Anthony Hopkins staring gormlessly into the middle distance through a window, you’ve got problems. Then again, such a moment in Daniel Alfredson‘s “Blackway” is a near-perfect summation of the film as a whole: dully shot, performed as though underwater, and almost entirely pointless. A would-be gritty tale that sets a minimal plot barely ticking over in the forests and mountains of British Columbia, it clearly has designs of being a sort of woodsy, foggy modern-day Western in which terse characters with tragic backstories live out hardscrabble lives, adhering to personal codes and doing What They Gotta Do. But if there’s a trick to making such stories lithe and resonant rather than episodic and mechanical, it’s one “Blackway” has missed. Instead, we get a thriller so turgid that its setting in logging country starts to feel like heavy irony: Lord, does it lumber.
Based on the spartan and quite lovely book “Go With Me” by Castle Freeman Jr., the film does a splendid job of entirely demystifying the novella’s fable-like structure and tone, with screenwriters Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs offering a literal rendition of a story that, for those who have read it, really lives and breathes in the spaces between its short, declarative sentences. It’s a paradox that in such an ostensibly faithful translation to the screen, such a lot can be lost. But Alfredson, whose previous work includes the two Swedish ‘Dragon Tattoo‘ sequels and the English-language “Kidnapping Mr. Heineken” (so, to be fair, we’d been given due warning) doesn’t offer an interpretation of the material so much as a first-take visualization of it, and an uninspired one at that. So we get all the plot beats of the novel, and none of the texture.
This is a problem because the plot is thin: Lillian (Julia Stiles), returning to her isolated, economically depressed logging-industry hometown following the death of her mother, is first assaulted and then stalked/menaced by local bad seed Blackway (Ray Liotta, playing “deranged” in a stunning coup of against-type casting). But when she goes to the Sheriff about it, he only suggests that she leave town, something Lillian, who Stiles invests with rare-but-gratifying flashes of truculent stubbornness, refuses to do. When there’s no convincing her, the Sheriff suggests she go ask Whizzer (Hal Holbrook) the aging, wheelchair bound owner of the local sawmill who might be able to find someone willing to stand up to ex-Deputy Blackway, whose meanness is a local legend, and whose very name seems to infect the local townsfolk with fear. At the mill, Whizzer refuses to help, but Lester (Anthony Hopkins), an old-timer employee of his, steps up and volunteers his stuttering young sidekick Nate (Alexand-d-d-der Ludwig) to boot. The unlikely threesome then go about tracking Blackway down, shaking down his associates, staking out his regular haunts and visiting his nefarious enterprises (notably a motel/meth lab/brothel). Showdown’s a-coming.
There are several missteps that sabotage any chance for a build-up of tension on the way to the finale. You can imagine a version in which Liotta’s appearance is saved for a cameo at the very end, and in which it’s the stories about Blackway, the mythic status accorded him by the cowed townspeople, especially the Greek Chorus of chattering old codgers at the mill, that makes him such a larger-than-life villain. But Liotta shows up even in the prologue here, so there’s that surprise gone, and well, it’s Ray Liotta as a villain, which is such a known cinematic quantity that it is almost banal by now. Similarly, having little faith that we’re going to have any emotional engagement with what’s on screen, Alfredson over-relies on Klaus Wahl and Anders Niska‘s overwrought, ever-present score (if the film is one-note, perhaps it’s because the grandiose music employs so many notes that there’s only one left.)
And to this list of woes we can add possibly Anthony Hopkins’s least engaged performance ever — doubly strange because his producer’s credit suggests he might have actually had a dog in this race. Although onscreen for a lot of the time, he just feels absent, which isn’t good, and isn’t even fun-bad like the hammy Hopkins we’ve seen in stuff like “Fracture” or “The Rite.” Here he doesn’t so much disappear into his role as simply disappear, even when we’re looking right at him.
We’re all familiar with the concept of the “unfilmable novel” — mostly because it’s a challenge that has been met quite frequently, with the likes of “Inherent Vice” and “Lord of the Rings” — but “Blackway,” the book, feels like the polar opposite. You can read it in roughly the same length of time that a feature film runs for, and it’s so elegantly written that it unspools in your head like a movie anyway. So it is a most filmable novel, but just because you’re able to do something doesn’t mean you should, which is the main lesson we can take from this murkily prosaic adaptation. This should be a crackling, wood-smokey campfire story of good folks taking on bad folks armed with nothing but courage and a homespun sense of justice, but in Alfredson’s “Blackway,” the fire’s out, the embers are cold, and everyone, especially Hopkins, appears to have already left. [C-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Venice Film Festival.