Director: Tom Shankland (UK/USA, 2007)
New York, present day. Seasoned cop, Eddie Argo, and his partner, Helen Westcott, are called out to inspect the slaying of the girlfriend of gangster boss, Wesley Smith, who is found with the inscription, ‘WΔZ’ carved on her pregnant belly. Eddie suspects rival boss, Pierre Jackson. The cops find Wesley, hanged and tortured. Both bodies are found to contain a sedative. Eddie visits one of Pierre’s crew, Daniel Leone. Fatally wounded, Daniel’s friend, Jimal, staggers into the apartment and dies. Jimal’s twin brother is found dead with the same inscription on his chest. Eddie and Helen arrest scientist, Dr Gelb, who is in possession of the sedative used in the murders. He explains that ‘WΔZ’ is an equation, which disproves the existence of self-sacrifice. He denies the murders. Helen reads Eddie’s file on Jean Lerner, who assisted Dr Gelb soon after she was gang raped by Pierre’s crew and forced to shoot her mother. Eddie tells her he terminated the case. Eddie and Helen break into Jean’s house to discover books on altruism and sketches of electric chairs. Jean kidnaps gang member, Ellie Carpenter. Eddie warns Daniel to stay away. Helen becomes suspicious. Ellie tells police she was made to kill her son. Jean tortures Pierre, who is forced to kill his grandmother. Jean tells Eddie she has Daniel. Jean hides in Eddie’s car and drugs him. Eddie wakes up, strapped to an electric chair across from Daniel. Jean tortures Eddie and plays a video-recording of Eddie and Daniel kissing. Daniel tells Jean that Eddie has protected him and his gang from going to prison. Jean castrates Eddie, but he refuses to press the switch that would electrocute Daniel. He tells Jean to kill him. Jean cuts his throat, kisses him and turns herself in. The police arrive. Daniel cries over Eddie’s body.
British TV director, Tom Shankland (Clocking off, The Hollow Men), has delivered an impressive, feature debut resulting in a compellingly downbeat combination of SAW-era sadism and unexpected emotional drama. Shooting in a largely replicated, New York City setting (actually Belfast) with a non-American cast, he has subverted the limitations of the frenetic, torture-porn sub-genre, by straddling the fence between edgy, neo-noir thriller and startlingly heartfelt, serial killer horror.
Scripted by TV writer, Clive Bradley (The Vice), the story is inspired by the scientific equation ‘WΔZ,’ which was formulated by the geneticist, George R. Price and which disproved the existence of altruism and selflessness. None of this is known, however, to world-weary cop, Eddie Argo (Stellen Skarsgärd) who is called to the docks with rookie partner, Helen Westcott (Melissa George), to inspect the murder of a pregnant woman, whose electrocuted body is found with the letters, ‘WΔZ’ carved on her belly. Eddie suspects gang leader, Pierre Jackson (Tom Hardy), since the woman was the girlfriend of rival boss, Wesley Smith; but the body count (mostly double slayings) soon escalates, as more gang members are found with the eponymous equation etched on their flesh. Only when the cops track down the anaesthetic used in the executions are they told about the ‘Price’ equation from lab scientist, Dr. Gelb (Paul Kaye), who explains some of the more complex reasoning behind the theory. Eddie and Helen determine that in each pair of victims, one was forced to kill a loved one to prevent being tortured.
Despite the patchy plot, which is somewhat overcomplicated by cod-psychology and blackboards full of equations, the film is saved by the edgy, melancholic performances of the two leads, who grow convincingly in their roles. Skarsgärd is at his intense, visceral and captivating best; his deeply ambiguous hero chiming perfectly with the film’s unforgiving mood; and George (something of a genre regular, having appeared in The Amityville Horror and 30 Days of Night), shows her strengths here in an understated performance, on the knife-edge between cute and enigmatic. Selma Blair (the only American actor) has a small but standout role as Jean Lerner, while British comedian, Paul Kaye’s deadpan lunacy works a treat for his unhinged scientist.
Shankland’s taut, restless direction is skilfully propelled by the handheld camera of Pusher cinematographer, Morten Soborg, who shoots the grungy Belfast locations on high-definition video, bringing a suitably agitated feel to the highly charged, mise-en-scene. Rejecting the penetration of sustained, natural light, the film recalls the heady aesthetic of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) and 70s urbanoia movies such as Taxi Driver (1976) and The Driller Killer (1979), as it deftly switches from dramatic, police procedural thriller, to macabre horror. Tension builds gracefully thanks to David Julyan’s doleful score and without the need for dramatic set pieces-though some wince-inducing torture scenes are saved for the last reel and there’s an unexpected final twist that brings Eddie to the centre of the drama that proves effective and thought-provoking.
Although the film occasionally suffers from a lacklustre script and is light on scares and the ‘science’ of the killer’s motive is rather vague and poorly explained, ‘WΔZ’ proves a stronger, darker and more intelligent thriller than most – Shankland has managed to carve some admirable and emotive territory into the genre’s unquestionable obsession with human tissue in torment.
Sight & Sound – Vol 18 Issue 03 – March 2008 – Page 88