On his two previous films2004's "Man on Fire
" and 2005's "Domino
"director Tony Scott's increasingly experimental and predominantly style-heavy filmmaking approach divided audiences and critics, with some (not I) believing his flashiness got in the way of the characters and storytelling. Although his latest, "Déjà Vu," has hints of this too, it is a study in understatedness in comparison. The plot, however, is a different story. Thematically schizophrenic and jumping from one genre to the nextmystery to drama to science-fiction to time-traveling thriller to romance and back againthe film is at once patently ridiculous, almost laughably so, and yet holds such an auspicious originality that Scott must be given credit where credit is due. He may not be the best director in the world, but he does know his way around a camera like few others in the business.
The picture begins with a bang, both figuratively and literally. An enjoyable Mardi Gras on a ferry boat off the New Orleans harbor ends in tragedy for the Navy men and women and their families when a bomb is set off onboard. The ferry boat explodes, causing over five hundred fatalities. Sent in to investigate is ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), who can find no strong leads until the body of a young woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), washes ashore nearby. With her fingers cut off and duct tape residue around her mouth, it is clear that she was not killed on the ferry boat, but Doug suspects that the crimes are somehow connected.
Enter an FBI unit headed by Agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who let Doug in on a powerful top-secret new technology that allows them to follow by computer any person or place in the area. The one catch is that there is no way to rewind or fast-forward, and the information they receive is on a four-and-a-half-day delay. As Doug begins following the every step of the ill-fated Claire during her final days alive, he becomes personally involved in saving her and the ferry boat victimseven if that means using the portal as a human time-traveling device.
The title act, which can be defined as the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time, is used in savvy and subtle ways that run throughout "Déjà Vu." It is a common, seemingly inexplicable, and sometimes creepy human experience that has rarely been explored to any great capacity on film before, and director Tony Scott and screenwriters Terry Rossio (2006's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
") and Bill Marsilii have a field day using it as a thematic tool within their plot. Sort of a cross between 1985's "Back to the Future," 2004's "Primer
" and 2006's "The Lake House
," the picture does a respectable, if not airtight, job of filling in the gaps and explaining its complex melding of the past and present. There are some holes in the story, to be surehow can something that has already happened be changed, and what does this mean for the universe's time and space continuum?but the longer the movie plays itself out, the more absorbing and eerily logical it becomes.
In order to get to the taut, suspense-laden climax and a crafty plot that comes full circle, beginning and ending at the same time, is it imperative that the viewer buy into the sci-fi scenario. This proves a little difficult, at least in the first hour, because the fictional technology on display is so ludicrous. Sitting at a computer, Doug and the scientists and agents working for the FBI are able to key in on any person or place they want, from any conceivable angle they wish, watching people from four and a half days ago who are unknowingly starring in their very own biographical movie. It's a silly idea and the genesis of the invention is not adequately explained. Fortunately, the tone takes a sharp turn in the second half and becomes palpably creepy and provocative as the full magnitude of the operation is disclosed. Suddenly, the viewer stops smirking at the far-fetched plot and genuinely begins to get involved in Doug's attempt to save Claire and stop the terrorist act from happening.
Denzel Washington (2006's "Inside Man
") is a reliably strong performer in nearly everything he does, and his turn as Doug Carlin is no exception. Doug is only passingly developed, but one gets a clear idea from watching Washington who this character is and what makes him tick. As the endangered Claire Kuchever, Paula Patton is as vibrant and fresh a presence as she was in 2006's "Idlewild
." Patton's part is a difficult one, since so much of it occurs within a computer frame documenting her existence, but she makes Claire the most memorable and sympathetic of the whole film. The rest of the roles are perfunctory, with Val Kilmer (2004's "Spartan
") wasted as Agent Pryzwarra and Erika Alexander (2002's "Full Frontal
") doing stellar work with little material as Shanti, one of the creators of the time travel technology.
"Déjà Vu" is bizarre, to say the least, and the middle act is bogged down with too many scenes of people sitting in a room looking at a computer, but what surrounds this problem area is enrapturing stuff. Giving the film a texture and mood it might have otherwise lacked is the on-location shooting in New Orleans, and the devastation that Hurricane Katrina left in its wake in this area is confronted in a low-key but effective manner. Also worth noting is the use of "Don't Worry Baby" by The Beach Boys during the bookend sequences, the upbeat nature of the classic pop song hauntingly contrasting with the ferry boat tragedy that sets the screws of the premise into motion. So many Hollywood movies these days are such banal and predictable cookie-cutter affairs that it makes one appreciate the flawed "Déjà Vu" for the risks it takes and the heady imagination it implores.