**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Wes Bentley, Rachel Nichols
screenplay by Franck Khalfoun, Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur
directed by Franck Khalfoun
by Alex Jackson SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Well, it starts off beautifully. The camera is floating around a parking lot while the Eartha Kitt version of "Santa Baby" plays on the soundtrack. The choice of this song is reminiscent of the semi-ironic use of "Mr. Sandman" at the end of Rick Rosenthal's pretty-damn-good Halloween II. It casts the madman who will chase our heroine in the role of a dream lover born of her subconscious death wish. Then the camera stops on a column with this level of the parking lot, P2, painted on it. The sign is flanked by the names of our leads, Rachel Nichols and Wes Bentley. Pretty cool way of presenting the film's title.
And then, right at the end, the stupid filmmakers fuck it all up. We arrive at a parked car and a woman bursts out of the trunk, a shock cue punctuated with a soundtrack stinger. The screen subsequently cuts to black and that's when we're given the "real" introduction of the title. To worsen matters, this scene turns up later in the film. The villain has locked the heroine in the trunk of a car, the police are surveying the scene, and he has put on "Santa Baby" to drown out her cries for help. This title sequence isn't a stand-alone bit of stylization, it's a flash-forward. A diegetic title with non-diegetic music (non-diegetic pop music, to be precise) is kind of neat. It evinces a strong directorial presence and makes me feel like I'm good hands. To reverse that with a non-diegetic title and diegetic music is safe and boring.
This is, in general, the biggest problem with P2. It's a pretty good movie, or at least it's a whole lot better than I was expecting it to be, but it just doesn't have faith in itself. The early scenes, in particular, seem overwritten--too much dialogue and too much exposition. The onslaught of background information renders any dull moment of normalcy distractingly inorganic. There's not enough depth to the characters, either. They're very simple in psychological terms. The film doesn't leave anything up to interpretation and everybody spells out their motivations verbally.
Moreover, I have issues with the film's central conflict. Angela (Nichols) is a corporate lawyer working late in the office on Christmas Eve. She's trying to get to her sister's house to celebrate the holidays when she is kidnapped by security guard Thomas (Bentley). Thomas has been in love with Angela for some time now and believes they belong together. So he drugs her, dresses her up in a white evening gown, and prepares a romantic Christmas dinner. Slasher films are traditionally anti-"family values"--either the monster belongs to a degenerate family of rednecks like in the Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw series or he's some buried suburban secret from the past like in the Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween series. Anti-Christian sentiments, most transparently on display in the terrible See No Evil, are also not uncommon. It's therefore logical that the filmmakers set Thomas up as an icon for the threat to domesticity.
The thing is, Angela is going to her sister's house to visit her parents and her nieces and nephews. She's bringing with her a big stuffed teddy bear and a Santa suit for her father to wear. What I'm trying to say is that she already is "domesticated," and that the maternal, family-oriented part of her co-exists with her businesswoman persona. Thomas, then, doesn't pose much of a threat in ideological terms. When she comes to and sees the romantic dinner he has prepared for her, she suddenly finds herself trying to escape from one Norman Rockwell painting into another. The film is cunning in how it tries to have it both ways: pander to the core audience of adolescents desperate for individualization by deriding Rockwell-ian values only to play on the sentimentality behind those same values to up the visceral tension. The idea that she's trying not just to save herself but also to see her family increases our sympathy for her. Moreover, when Angela turns the tables and gets revenge on Thomas, it doesn't have much power as pop feminism because we never feel that she's discovering her inner warrior. As she is introduced to us as a young corporate lawyer, we already view her as properly powerful and self-motivated. When she kills Thomas, she is conquering a singular antagonist, not an antagonistic force. In simple dramatic terms, she doesn't "grow" as a result of her experiences. The conflict of the film is very superficial and lacks archetypal resonance.
Still, I found myself enjoying P2 immensely on shallow pop-art terms. It's slick filmmaking, Bentley and Nichols are easy to look at, and the soundtrack of high-royalty Christmas songs is great fun. The DVD cover art is wonderful, too: Nichols in a white evening gown, soaking wet and displaying wonderful cleavage, grasping an axe in her handcuffed hands. It has an iconic thrust as movie advertising art--an image like that should really get asses into seats. The one element of the film that appealed to me the most was the simple setting of Christmas in an office building. I've often wondered why exactly Die Hard captures the feeling of the season for me more successfully than something like It's a Wonderful Life. The reason is that the true meaning of Christmas is gifts; Christmas is about family togetherness in the way that family togetherness can be transformed into a commodity to be bought and sold.
The modest power of P2 largely derives from its wholehearted embrace of its shiny soullessness as a consumer product. "Christmas in an office building" goes a long way towards justifying the generic title and sentimentality behind Angela's quest to reunite with her family. It goes a long way, too, in explaining the appeal behind the film's aesthetic look and goofy/wonderful soundtrack. I'm fascinated by the very last shot of the film, where Angela wanders out of the parking lot onto a snow-laced street at dawn. This has to be one of the most gorgeous tableaux of 2007 and it's also one of the more artificial--it's somehow completely unconvincing as a depiction of reality. You feel as though you're looking at beautiful CGI. I'm an adherent of the "it-was-all-a-dream" theories for the endings of WALL·E and War of the Worlds (2005), and while I won't offer one here, this denouement renders P2 a ripe target for enterprising apologists.
It's interesting to me how the most popular and talked-about horror films of recent years (like the Hostel films, the new Texas Chainsaw Massacres, and The Devil's Rejects) are also the most upfront about their sexual violence. In what you would think are the more cynical cash-in enterprises (like this, I Know Who Killed Me, and Captivity), any suggestion of sexual violence is dutifully obscured. When hardcore according-to-Hoyle "torture porn" becomes the mainstream, it appears that the "psychological thriller" is pushed underground. There is no sex or actual nudity in P2 and it's very "tasteful" along those lines. Furthermore, Thomas isn't a rapist and doesn't have an overtly sexual interest in Angela. Rather, he's an obsessed romantic who seemingly wants to marry and grow old with her.
There is a sense in which this aspect of the film manages to legitimately add a touch of "class" to P2 and place it somewhat above your typical entry in the "torture porn" genre. But then it goes on to deliberately satirize such distinctions. Thomas certainly doesn't see himself as a rapist and even murders the guy who molested Angela at the office Christmas party. Thomas is also aggressively light-hearted in his interactions with Angela. When she awakens from being drugged, he's dressed like Santa Claus, trying to amuse her. More, he utters the phrase "just kidding" so much that it threatens to become his catchphrase. At one point, he stresses that he's not going to hurt her--actually an innovative thing for a movie psycho to say.
Ultimately, Thomas is just your garden-variety pervert. An "obsessed romantic" like him falls under the same category as a typical rapist in that both are control- and power-oriented and carry on with little regard for feedback from the other person. In very basic terms, he doesn't understand that "no means no," and that equivocates him with the very scum he disdains. The filmmakers get a little too-on-the-nose near the end of P2. Angela stumbles upon a video that clearly shows Thomas groping her while she lies there unconscious, whereas a simple unwelcome massage earlier on was sufficient in making our skin crawl. And right before Angela turns the tables, Thomas calls her a "fucking cunt." It's too easy, this idea of "nobody calls me a 'fucking cunt' and you uttering that incantation gives me the moral authority to murder you." On the other hand, I understand that this is necessary for the audience to accept her gory revenge and I appreciate that it concretely identifies Thomas as a misogynist and sources his smothering "romantic" obsession to an underlying fear and hatred of women.
More problematic is that P2 cheats on the "I'm never going to hurt you" promise and has Thomas attempt to do exactly that by flooding the elevator that Angela has locked herself inside and siccing his pit bull on her. Possibly, Thomas could justify this by saying that he isn't going to kill her, but he had to hurt her as she left him no choice; and after she is incapacitated he will fix her up. Yet it occurs to me that this significantly compromises the subversive "evil nice guy" persona the film has established for him and essentially reduces him to a conventional movie bad guy.
Still, this sets up the film's finest moment. The pit bull chases Angela into a car and she dispatches it with a crowbar. This dog killing is perhaps the most graphic and viscerally disturbing moment of violence in recent years. The sound effects are incredibly wet and juicy and you empathize with the suffering animal as Angela struggles with the task. Upon discovering this, Thomas accuses her of murdering a "defenseless animal." The death of this pit bull is anything but gratuitous and completely justified by the demands of the storyline (such as it is). You don't feel that it's a callow challenge to political correctness or an overly subversive take on movie conventions where animal life is regarded as higher than human life. Instead, its legitimacy as movie violence fruitfully rebukes the "touchy-feely" misanthropy embodied by the Thomas character.
Summit Entertainment's DVD release of P2 is what it is. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports deep dark blacks and suggests fidelity to the drab colour scheme of the theatrical release while coming out at full force during the incandescent fiery conclusion. Authoring flaws are not an issue. Balancing is slightly off in the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, with the hard-hitting stingers and general ambience overwhelming the centre-channel dialogue, if never quite drowning it out. Director and co-writer Frank Khalfoun and producers and co-writers Alexandre Aja and Gregory Lavesseur record a full-length audio commentary that's high on self-congratulation and could easily antagonize those with little sympathy for the material. I dunno, though, I don't honestly expect filmmaker commentaries to go on at length about how much their product sucks. Khalfoun comes off as a bit of a hired gun, or more to the point minor horror-film hyphenate Aja overshadows him here. Aja points out a number of "in-jokes" referencing his previous films and the current Mirrors and mentions how despite killing off a canine in every one of his movies he actually likes dogs. Meanwhile, many lascivious comments are directed at star Rachel Nichols. (Aja starts off with the weirdest, mentioning how sexy she looks in high heels with a chain cuffed around her ankle.)
The featurettes are astonishingly insubstantial. "A New Level of Fear: The Making of P2" (12 mins.) is your typical making-of. There are a couple of howlers, like Nichols generously offering that P2 preys on our fear of parking lots, but nothing else of interest. "Tension Nouveau: Presenting Frank Khalfoun" (3 mins.) seeks to artificially inflate Khalfoun's ownership of P2. I don't know whose bright idea it was to call this piece "Tension Nouveau," which, of course, throws the attention back on Aja by reminding of his film High Tension. I did appreciate "Designing Terror" (5 mins.), which discusses the production design of the parking lot--the sort of thing you don't think about but should. Trailers for P2 and Never Back Down round out the platter. Originally published: August 27, 2008.