In "Safe House," Denzel Washington plays one badass sociopath, murderer, traitor and still manages to steal screen time from all of those around him and to be charming to boot. This includes Ryan Reynolds (Matt Weston) whose character is along for the ride and a backdrop for Tobin Frost’s (Washington’s) driving escape from the CIA.
Julian Assange anyone? (Not that we know if Assange is guilty, whereas we know Frost is.)
The script by David Guggenheim is one-dimensional in that the film is about Frost’s running from the CIA and from Weston, the “housekeeper “of a safe house, who is meant to guard Frost. Frenzy is what this movie really is about.
For eight years I had writing lessons from Norman Mailer who was my mentor and who lectured me on plot. He would make graphs of his work and of my work. Drawings. Trying to teach me about movement in a story.
He would make a graph of a novel that I was working and it would look like a doodle. Circles. Then I would make him a drawing of what I thought was the plot of his novel "Barbary Shore" and make it a series of circles. And we would laugh.
“You have to have a through line in your novel otherwise it is just chaos, and chaos is not plot.”
If one were to draw a graph of the plot of "Safe House," it would be close to a series of circles. Very little movement in plot. Movement of characters running willy nilly, yes. But character driven plot is lacking.
Mailer who loved badass sociopaths would have loved Denzel Washington’s character, but I suspect Mailer would have thrown his hands in the air when asked to make a graph of the plot of "Safe House."
A few of Mailer’s graphs are now in Harvard’s Houghton Library as its curator, Leslie Morris, saw value in my archive and purchased it after Mailer’s death.
Perhaps it would have helped screenwriter David Guggenheim to have worked from a graph instead of allowing a chase to become practically the entire plot.
"Safe House" is about secrets of the CIA that are on microchips that Frost has acquired illegally. He will sell these chips to the highest bidder and blow the lily white lid off the CIA. Alas, one murder ensues.
The CIA is headed by Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard), who reminds me of Dick Cheney. He is smooth, cunning and hides his involvement in this intrigue from everyone. Captivating as only Sam Shepard can be, he is assisted by Catherine Linklater (Vern Farmiga) who is her dynamic self. David Barlow (Brendon Gleeson) is a robust skillful presence and rounds out the star cast of the CIA.
What there is to the plot is simple: Frost is on the run from the CIA with his micro chip and gets caught and put in a "Safe House" in South Africa. The” housekeeper” is Weston, a newbie in the CIA and has Billy Budd written all over him. After Frost is water boarded to no avail and is about to be cut with a knife, thugs break into the "Safe House" and murder everyone save Frost and Weston who escape in a getaway car after Weston throws Frost in the trunk.
Eventually this becomes a buddy film as the two become allies — a bit reminiscent of the Hope/Crosby Road films only with violence thrown in the mix. Catherine Linklater thinks Weston has turned. Her realization of this possibility could be the highlight of the film. When she confronts Barlow, all hell breaks loose. And everyone runs on.
The sound is at times overbearing, but relatively effective. The cinematography and visual effects are excellent with beautiful shots of Cape Town and South Africa. Daniel Espinoza’s direction builds the momentum slowly and intently if not at times heavy-handed as two stars chasing each other while dodging gunfire becomes tiresome.
If the idea of seeing two not-quite-"Nuns on the Run" appeals to you, run to this film. Otherwise walk.