The Scientist (2010)
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I expected to be confounded by ?The Scientist,? a low-budget film with a science-fiction premise and a humanist message.
Instead, I found director-producer-writer Zach LeBeau an efficient, and fairly linear, job of storytelling, which makes it all the more effective.
Often, I?ve found films made on a shoestring ? and that?s most of them ? are either too short to adequately get their point across, or sabotaged by the filmmakers? indulgences. Many a good indie movie has been undercut by a director?s need to overcut ? to over-edit, over-think and over-?artsify? their films. Either through film-school pretense, an attempt to compensate for the lack of big-budget special effects or simple ego, they turn what might?ve been fine stories into jumbles of flashbacks, distorted images and other pretentious, unnecessary trickery.
(I?m thinking of one film in particular, which I rented recently to see the performance of an actor-friend of mine. The filmmaker made the mistake of including the original opening scenes as ?bonus material,? which made it glaringly honest that his ?final cut? had been turned into an incomprehensible mess.)
Happily, LeBeau keeps his story (he co-wrote the screenplay with Chase Brandau) at the forefront. Though the film, a taut 88 minutes, is artfully edited and beautifully shot (by Matthias Saunders), it never loses track of the story it?s trying to tell.
It also benefits tremendously from the performance of its lead actor, Bill Sage, a veteran character actor who offers stunning proof that he?s capable of carrying a film, with work of great intensity and emotion.
Sage plays Marcus Ryan, a physicist who?s been coming gradually unhinged since the deaths (the result of some unnamed tragedy) of his wife and young daughter. He?s holed up in the family home, which includes a laboratory where?s secretively constructing a machine that generates psychic energy ? ostensibly to try to make some contact with the spirits of his dearly departed.
He?s visited by a colleague, Alan (Adam Lefevre) and the couple who move in next door, Jessica and David (Brittany Benjamin and Jamie Elman). But he?s oblivious to everything but his project, and his pain. He?s already tried to take his own life once ? and hobbles over a cane because of injuries suffered in what Alan tactfully refers to as ?the fall? ? and, in the film?s single most gripping scene ? is thwarted in a second attempt by a gun that providentially jams.
It?s at that point ? when Marcus has hit bottom, undone by his grief and frustration ? that the wonder of his invention, and of LeBeau?s story, begins to kick in.
Until then, Sage has given us a portrait of a destroyed, desperate man, tragically submerged in the memories of his family and consumed by his long-shot bid to re-establish some sort of contact ? cross-consciousness, cross-dimensional, however ? with them. At one point, he screams his frustration at the machine, ?Bring them back!?
After his second failed suicide attempt, Marcus begins to see evidence that his contraption, whirring away in his lab, might actually be working ? creating or transferring energy, cutting through waves of consciousness, opening lines of communication. Its work manifests itself in echoes of voices and subconscious glimpses of his wife and daughter, but also in his ability to ?overhear? the thoughts and conversations of those physically near him, including the couple next door.
Through his psychic eavesdropping, he learns that he doesn?t have a corner on the unhappiness market. The young wife, Jessica, is trapped in a marriage to a complete tool, and carrying a baby she?s convinced she?s neither ready nor willing to bring to term.
Thrilled by the hints of success, Marcus is transformed. Realizing his invention might prove much more than just a conduit to his lost loves, he rediscovers his own humanity ? and, consequently, cops a shower, a shave and some much-needed sleep before offering the comfort that Jessica needs.
As mentioned before, the film is pretty to look at. Saunders swathes its nondescript outdoor locations ? Council Bluffs, Iowa, Omaha, Neb. and Minneapolis ? in glorious fall colors and comforting sunlight. He also avoids the indie-film bugaboo of dark interiors, allowing us to clearly see what?s going on even when the lights are out.
The sound department doesn?t fare as well, though. The more forte bits of Steve Horner?s otherwise-lovely score, and some of Marcus? more intense experiments, are loud to the point of distortion.
The film also falls victim to a few minor sci-fi cliches (like the pensive solo-piano accompaniment through much of the early going), and takes a few narrative shortcuts (like David?s almost jarringly sudden transformation from tool to non-tool). But there?s nothing that detracts from the storytelling ? the holes that are left are not gaping, and, thankfully, LeBeau hasn?t tried to plug them or distract from them with cheesy special effects he probably couldn?t afford anyway.
The sci-fi aspect of ?The Scientist? won?t dazzle you. But it?s really just a component of the storytelling, which is admirable both in its aspirations and its execution. With the terrific Sage as its centerpiece, it?s interesting, thought-provoking and affirming ? attributes that are consistently lacking in big-budget, CGI-dominated movies, sci-fi or otherwise.
- Michael Moore, Kitsap Sun
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