‘Interview’: Shock Therapy, By Kurt Loder

Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller draw blood in a wonderfully nasty actor's showcase. Also: 'Captivity.'

“Interview” is a movie in which nobody gets shot, chased, or bashed in the face, and nothing blows up. And yet it’s thrilling to watch. The story is a shadow play of predatory deception. The characters aren’t very nice, and they evolve in joltingly unexpected ways. The dialogue cuts like a knife, and the two lead performances, by Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller, have an electrifying emotional focus — neither actor has ever been more mesmerizing.

This is the fourth feature directed by Buscemi (who also co-wrote the script), and it’s composed of elements so intricately interlinked that to give away too many of them would be an inexcusable disservice to prospective viewers. Basically, though, it’s a New York media story about celebrity and disenchantment and simple human cruelty. Buscemi plays a sour, middle-aged magazine writer named Pierre, a onetime war correspondent now reduced to conducting fluff interviews with famous faces. His latest assignment is a blonde starlet named Katya (Miller), a young woman known less for her work (a teary TV series and the occasional slasher movie) than for her sex life and variable breast size.

She’s an hour late for their interview in a trendy restaurant, and their encounter goes downhill from the moment she arrives. Pierre is openly contemptuous of Katya and all that he thinks she represents. He’s never watched her TV show or seen any of her movies (even though he’s been given one of them and has it in his bag). She has a surprisingly thick skin about this sort of media hostility — he’s gotten used to it. But Pierre is insufferable, and before the interview even gets started, Katya decides it’s over. She calls for the check, and when it comes he reaches for it. “I have an expense account,” he says. She snatches it away. “I have a bank account,” she says.

Something unexpected happens and they wind up back at her vast loft. They start drinking and they don’t stop. Pierre’s scorn grows increasingly open. “You’re a rich, spoiled brat who can turn on the charm,” he tells Katya. “But that’s not the same as having talent.” Then, when she drifts off to take a phone call, he flips open the laptop on her kitchen table and clicks into a diary she keeps on it. He’s shaken by what he reads. When she returns, he tries to apologize for his animosity. She seems to melt a bit, but soon they’re going at each other again. The ebb and flow of their verbal parrying has an impacted Buñuellian rhythm: She wants him gone, but doesn’t actually throw him out; he wants to leave, but never quite makes it to the door.

Their probing into one another’s lives becomes obsessive. She suggests they tell each other their darkest, most shameful secrets. She tells hers, and it’s shattering. He tells one of his, and it’s a shock; then he tells another, the big one, and it’s ghastly. At this point, we realize that our initial assessment of these two people was completely off-track. But then, before long, we realize that our second assessment was equally wrong. The end of the film is a body slam that seems to come out of nowhere.

“Interview” is an English-language adaptation of a 2003 movie by the late Dutch filmmaker and controversialist Theo van Gogh. In 2004, van Gogh collaborated with the Somalian writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali on a provocative film about the abject subjugation of women in fundamentalist Islamic societies. In November of that year, the director was shot dead and mutilated on an Amsterdam street by a jihadist assassin. At the time, van Gogh had been contemplating remaking three of his earlier movies in English, relocating their locales to New York, a city he loved. After his death, his producer, Gijs van de Westelaken, joined with American producer Bruce Weiss to complete this project posthumously, under the rubric “Triple Theo.” Of the New York actor-directors to whom they offered the films, Buscemi was the first to sign on. (The other two movies are being made by Stanley Tucci and John Turturro.)

I think we can assume that the pugnacious tone of “Interview” derives from van Gogh’s original picture; and that at least a skeletal amount survives of the original Dutch script, by Theodor Holman. But Buscemi and his co-writer, David Schechter, have refurbished the story with sizzling idiomatic English. And because the picture essentially consists of two people in a room talking, and was shot in van Gogh’s gritty low-budget style (with three digital cameras, over the course of nine nights), it sweeps you up like a wonderfully well-mounted stage play.

Steve Buscemi is one of our most amiable actors; he carries a warm glow with him from one movie to another. Who hasn’t marveled at his rigorously underplayed performances in films like “Ghost World” and “The Island” and the recent “Paris, je t’aime”? Here, though, he creates a character in which all warmth has been extinguished, and his self-loathing malice and inexhaustible dishonesty are hypnotic.

The movie’s most startling revelation, however — at least for those who haven’t been following her career — may be Sienna Miller. Here’s an actress who’s been delivering uniquely-shaped performances over the last three years in pictures that very few people have gone to see: the bubbly “Casanova,” the 2004 remake of “Alfie,” and most recently the underrated ’60s biopic “Factory Girl.” In none of these films has she coasted on the beautiful reality of being Sienna Miller. She always seeks out new character shadings and camera strategies, and she always delivers. Her performance in “Interview” — a combustible mixture of dubious vulnerability and icy calculation — is unlikely to be surpassed by any other actress who ends up competing for an Academy Award this year. If there’s any justice, she’ll be one of them.

‘Captivity’: Blood Simple

I suppose this wearisome horror flick might have started out as torture porn. That was certainly the suggestion conveyed by those bondage billboards that caused such a ruckus in Los Angeles earlier this year. Personally, I think the billboards were probably P.R. hype, like the launch party held for the picture a couple of weeks ago, which, according to The New York Times (!), was supposed to feature cage fighting, porn girls and “live torture rooms.” I’m kind of sorry I missed that. There have also been rumors that “Captivity,” which was filmed two years ago, had to be extensively re-shot — really, really extensively — to qualify for an R rating. Love it.

Not since the 1970s — or maybe the ’50s — has exploitation pump-priming been so flamboyantly shameless. For this we can apparently thank Courtney Solomon, the head of After Dark Films, a quickie horror house now nestled wetly beneath the wing of the more respectable Lionsgate Films. Solomon is clearly a man who knows what he wants. The question is, does anybody else want it?

“Captivity” was made by a real director, Roland Joffé, who back in the 1980s was nominated for Oscars for movies like “The Killing Fields” and “The Mission.” So it has a certain visual sophistication. And it’s fashioned around a story from the legendarily feverish mind of Larry Cohen, the man behind such one-of-a-kind ’70s schlock as “It’s Alive” and “God Told Me To.” So it has a certain sort of top this! pulp dementia.

What it doesn’t have is a story strong enough to stifle a viewer’s increasingly frequent yawns. In fact, this is the story: Elisha Cuthbert gets kidnapped by a big fat guy in a black hood who drags her to his house of horrors to menace her with guns, knives and pliers, and to pour body-part smoothies down her throat, until the end of the movie arrives after way too long and she escapes.

The picture isn’t scary, or even disgusting, really; it’s oppressive — dark and unpleasant in a depressingly unimaginative way. I’d lament Cuthbert’s taste in film projects, except that … well, for one thing, she’s already starred in the “House of Wax” remake; and secondly, nobody’s gonna see this thing.

After Dark’s next picture is a werewolf film called “Skinwalkers.” There’s said to be some “buzz” around it, for what we all know that’s worth. Wonder where it’s coming from?

Check out everything we’ve got on “Interview” and “Captivity”.

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