Thursday, February 23, 2012

Safe House & Death In Art

Safe House, starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds is a cross between The Bourne Identity and Training Day: Reynolds (Matt Weston) gives a great performance, with lots of emotional highs and lows, but never too much, emotional, but balanced, while Mr. Washington (Tobin Frost) is in top form, as usual. What is rewarding about the film are all the golden nuggets hidden, hither and thither, which rewards the viewer with a greater understanding of the stakes for both characters and the psychological conversions.
For example, when Matt is in a high-speed chase, and Tobin breaks out into the back seat from the trunk of the car, Tobin uses his handcuffs to try and strangle Matt; well, that's common sense, you might say, of course he's going to do that, but given Tobin's understanding of psychology holding Matt's neck with the handcuffs symbolizes how Matt is "yoked" to the CIA and whatever they tell him to believe.
Ryan Reynolds as Matt Weston, a low-level CIA employee wanting to get "into the filed" and out of the safe house he operates. When Tobin Frost, the highly prized asset the CIA has been trying to track for years, is suddenly on his way to Matt's safe house, it's the most action he's ever seen. The safe house is attacked, everyone killed, and Matt has to get Tobin out of there, knowing that someone on the inside, in the CIA, betrayed them and told the attackers where they could get Tobin.
"You crushed my windpipe," Matt tells Tobin, and symbolically, we could look at that as a favor: breathing symbolizes what it is that we take in, and Tobin, crushing it, isn't allowing Matt to "take in" the lies his superiors are feeding him. When Tobin has escaped Matt, and threatens to kill him with a bullet to the head, firing instead at the brick wall, it explodes Matt's ear drum; why? Because this whole time Tobin, just like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, has been telling Matt what's going to happen and why, so it blocks out, symbolically, everything else the heads at the CIA tell Matt so all he hears is, "You've done a fine job, we'll take it from here," because the audience has had their ear drum exploded as well and that's all we hear. When we hear those words, just like Matt, we hear nothing else, because Tobin has programmed us to listen for those words as a clue of who not to trust and verification of Tobin's own psychological powers.
This is a great shot because, of course, the one in the driver's seat is the one driving, the one "steering" the relationship, and the one in the back seat is out of control. There is also the element of the rear view mirror (there are great uses made of reflections and glass throughout the film for all the characters): Tobin talking to Matt is also Tobin remembering himself as he was when he first started, so when Tobin tells Matt that "I only kill professionals," meaning that Matt isn't a professional so that's why Tobin isn't going to kill him, it also means (as I will elaborate upon below) that Matt isn't what Tobin is: a rogue murderer guilty of espionage and maybe a lot of other rotten stuff.
As I mentioned, there is a lot of violence in the film, but it's in a way that it materializes the inner-struggles of the characters, which in turn symbolizes the inner struggles of all these countries who are dealing with corruption in their intelligence offices. Towards the end, when Matt has successfully gotten Tobin to a safe house to await extraction, he has a brutal fight with the safe house keeper, Keller who is a killer. Keller stabs Matt with a large shard of glass in his stomach, symbolizing how "reflecting" upon the events, and "digesting" what has happened, has wounded Matt's ability to trust.
What is it that sets off the whole chain of events? Tobin obtains a file of all the crooked intelligence officers in the world, and one of them, pictured above, is not happy about being on Tobin's laundry list and will do anything to kill Tobin and delete the list, which is exactly the kind of behavior which landed them on the list to begin with.
 This wound has an interesting effect, the kind of effect that can only happen in art: he becomes stronger because of it. The last person in the world that should be set up to kill Matt is Keller, but that's exactly who tries to do Matt in. Although it looks like Matt could die from this wound--I certainly didn't expect to see him alive in the next scene--it's only after this wound that Matt is trusted by Tobin with what is in the file that Tobin is carrying. It's not so much that Matt can take this kind of injury that makes him worthy of Tobin's trust, it's that this wound heals previous wounds that was keeping Matt from applying his wisdom and own insight into human nature so he can finish this assignment.
David Barlow has a "low" "bar." Played by Brendan Gleeson, Barlow is Matt's mentor in the CIA and trying to get him a better posting and is even keeping the rest of the CIA from taking action against Matt for "going rogue" with Tobin because Matt's not following orders. When they meet last, Matt knows Barlow's name is on the list and Matt has become world-wise enough to know that Tobin is right about him.
But let's talk about Tobin.
When Tobin ditches Matt and gets to a hotel room, before he goes to get the forged papers, he shaves, cuts his hair and removes the file he injected into his stomach. This tells us that, besides just changing his identity so he won't be so easy to recognize, he's also changing his attitude: shaving of hair means a shedding of the animal instincts and passions, so Tobin is "reflecting more" (he's looking in the mirror while shaving) and going to try to behave differently so he doesn't become like the men on the laundry list he's been caring inside of him (like Matt being stabbed with the shard of glass and digesting everything that has happened to him).
It's rather ironic that the person who will give Tobin a false identity is also the only person who knows the real Tobin. Previously, in the soccer stadium, Tobin wore a security outfit, and that's pretty accurate, because Tobin is only dressing up to be in the security business, he's too corrupt to be able to administer justice fairly.
When Tobin first gets shot, he's in a green room, and the green wall is a sign of decay, because it's while Tobin is going down the stairs (a digression) that he gets shot: this is the moment we know that Tobin isn't going to make it through the rest of the film, because he is no better than the guys he's bringing to justice. But we see this again when Tobin actually dies. Earlier in the film, Carlos the document forger, calls Tobin "The black Dorian Gray," and, Dorian Gray, of course, is from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, a young man who sells his soul to commit all kinds of sin, but a portrait takes on the weight of the sin leaving Dorian to continue looking young, until he meets his portrait
Just before he's fatally shot.
This is what the film does really well: when David Barlow comes out, his face half-blown off by a car explosion (which lets us know that his "mask of innocence" has been blown) this is the moment when "the black Dorian Gray" meets his portrait, because Barlow's shot is fatal. When Tobin slumps down against the wall, he tells Matt, "Be better than me," blood dribbles out of his mouth and he dies, we know that blood coming out of his mouth is the price for all the lies that he has told because he keeps telling Matt that you learn to lie automatically as if the lies were really the truth, and that's why Tobin dies: he's too bad to enforce justice, he's not strong enough to withstand the shot. There is a ray of hope, though, because the walls are yellow where he dies, suggesting that Matt was a good influence and Tobin had an interior repentance. 
Regrettably, Matt doesn't take Tobin's advice.
While Matt successfully exposes the corrupt heads of intelligence organizations around the world, he lies to the CIA chief Harlan Whitford that Tobin never mentioned a file to him, so Matt's telling lies exactly as Tobin predicted he would. The meaning of Safe House, then is that we are all the house, and the truth has to be safe within us or the truth doesn't actually exist anywhere. If we, like the CIA, "aren't interested in the truth anymore," than we ourselves are not safe houses and can't expect that of anyone else. When Matt goes to Paris to meet up with his girlfriend, Ana, the last shot of Matt suggest Mission Impossible, and the barriers of lies and mistrust that would always come between them will make Matt nothing more than a shadow because he has all ready started to tell the lies.