Top positive review
132 of 146 people found this helpful
Surprisingly good, surprisingly effective thriller
on August 15, 2005
Almost every film you watch requires some level of suspension of disbelief. Some genres (Sci-Fi, Horror, Musicals, etc.) require more than others (drama). I am willing to give any film the benefit of the doubt and fully "buy into" the world the filmmakers attempt to create. Because of this, I expect a lot from the filmmakers in return. If they expect me to take that leap of faith, I expect them to deliver believable characters, an interesting, involving story and to make me laugh, believe, get frightened, whatever the story would dictate. If they do that, I usually enjoy the film. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen enough. If they don't, the film becomes a mess. "The Skeleton Key", the new thriller starring Kate Hudson, is a film requiring a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. The key to unlocking its success is to make everything believable. Does it accomplish that?
Caroline (Kate Hudson), a hospice worker in New Orleans, becomes so disillusioned with her job that she answers an ad for a private in-home caregiver in a parish about an hour out of the city. Upon arrival, she meets Violet (Gena Rowlands), the wife of her new patient, Ben (John Hurt). Violet is reluctant to have strangers in her house, a large plantation home that has seen better days, but their lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard, "Kinsey") insists that she get help for Ben during his last days; he had a heart attack while working in the attic and is now paralyzed on both sides of his body, unable to speak or move. Caroline accepts the job and soon receives a skeleton key that will open every door in the house. Exploring the house, she soon makes her way up to the attic and begins to discover some strange things.
"The Skeleton Key", directed by Iain Softley ("K-PAX") and written by Ehren Kruger ("The Ring Two", "The Ring", "Arlington Road"), is that strange thing; a thriller with good performances, good writing, good directing and only the occasional cheap thrill.
All of the performances in the film are very good. Perhaps the biggest surprise is Kate Hudson who takes a 180* turn from the "comedies" she has been subjecting us to for the last few years. She does a really good job in this very dramatic role. As a 25 year old dealing with issues of her father's death, Hudson's Caroline becomes a caregiver. Disillusioned by the economics of her job in the city, she takes a job in the country, caring for one man. She soon realizes that perhaps there is more gong on than meets the eye. During the course of the film, she tries to figure things out. Unlike most thrillers or scary movies, Caroline seems to have a head on her shoulders. She doesn't believe in "Hoodoo", an offshoot of voodoo which features prominently in the film, or spirits or ghosts, so when she makes the inevitable trip to the "dark room", in this case, the attic, it happens during the middle of the day. It is still a bit frightening, but at least she has the common sense to not make this trip in the dead of night. As she learns things, she uses this new knowledge to help her. She also asks for help. In most thrillers, the female lead usually lacks all of these traits. This, and the gravitas or her back story, help to give Caroline a resonance, a weight that we don't often see.
Gena Rowlands, is, as always, good. Violet is the big question mark in the story. Is she involved in the sinister goings-on, or not? Generally, this type of character would have wild mood swings, one moment, she is evil incarnate, the next, sweet as pie. Thankfully, Rowlands plays it more subdued. What really helps the character is that she is presented as an old woman "set in her ways", "old-fashioned", "distraught over her husband's condition". Because of this, her character is more subtle and there are more shades of gray to all of her actions, which can be attributed to her "set-ways". Even when she is being nice to Caroline, she is a bit abrupt and when she is abrupt, we get a sense there is a shade of kindness. Rowland's performance aids the well-written character keeping us guessing what and if there is something lying underneath.
John Hurt's performance is the trickiest because he uses almost no words throughout. The victim of a stroke, paralyzed on both sides, Ben can't move a muscle. But his eyes move, and they dart back and forth, or convey the anguish or terror he feels. At one point, Caroline is bathing him and gets soap in her eye, using a compact to make sure it is gone, she remembers Violet's admonition to keep mirrors out of the house "because they show the spirits walking throughout". Caroline opens the compact and places it in front of Ben's face. When she does this, Ben begins thrashing about. Finally, able to soothe him, Caroline apologizes. It really is amazing to experience all of these emotions through an actor who basically uses only his eyes throughout the performance.
The film is very well-written and well-directed. Throughout, writer Kruger and director Softley give us clues, and even a few red herrings, but some of these are so well-hidden that we aren't able to piece everything together until the very end, when the secrets are revealed to Hudson's Caroline. At this point, your mind will click back to all of the clues and you will, hopefully, realize how clever everything is. The ending has a neat little twist, which I didn't see coming, but now that I know what it is, it all makes sense. How refreshing for a film to make sense, to connect the dots through the many layers of the story.
Director Softley seems tailor made for this film. His last film "K-PAX" was a mess, but in "Key", he immerses us immediately in Caroline's world, starting the film without any credits of any kind. As we learn about Caroline's back-story, her character becomes more believable and real to us. After she arrives at the plantation, and is given the skeleton key, there are many shots of the interior of locks, as the key opens another door, and Caroline explores the house. This is an interesting metaphor for her learning secrets. The film is also remarkably free of the dumb thriller and horror film clichés so rife in other examples. As mentioned, Caroline asks for help, looks around in the middle of the day, and learns. There are also few, if any cheap thrills generated by "stray black cats". There is one scene in which Caroline wakes up in the middle of the night and immediately jumps out of bed wearing only panties and a t-shirt to investigate a sound. If it were me, I would've thrown on a pair of sleep bottoms before running around in a large, dark plantation house. But these types of typical horror/ thriller movie clichés are few and far between here.
"The Skeleton Key" is a surprisingly well-written, acted and directed thriller complete with a clever twist which is well connected to the rest of the story.