I had no idea what to expect with this film, the thought that it might be a slick, polished Hollywood thriller was at the fore of my mind, particularly with the cast it carried.
Stellan Skarsgård and Melissa George headlined, and combining the kind of films that these two actors have in their recent career that's what I expected.
What I found was something quite different. Something dark, edgier, far more clever than the typical Hollywood thriller I was expecting and definitely more uncomfortable. In short, something much better.
The story sees a seasoned cop, played by Stellan Skarsgård, accept a new partner, played by Melissa George, just as a body is found that has been electrocuted and mutilated in a very methodical and brutal way. As they begin to track down the people connected with the murder they find that this isn't just a single killing and that there's a pattern to the victims, leading them on a trail which is turning close to home.
From the opening scene the style reminds me of NYPD Blue, a series I loved which started a much imitated style. The hand held camera with the slight nervous movement combined with the harder more edgy script stands out from the first few scenes and feels very natural, at times almost documentary like. It gives a strong edge to the film.
The relationship between George's and Skarsgård's characters is also clearly defined from these early scenes. As they discover the first body that begins the case, the rookie cop arrives looking fresh and smart in comparison to the greyed and rough look of her seasoned partner.
The tone and style is set very well in these scenes, and you are instantly drawn into the story, a story which takes a surprisingly quick, and very welcome, turn to the dramatic. Later, about halfway through the story it also begins to turn from thriller to horror, a move that is well scripted and pulls you along with it without ever grating.
This move into horror brings with it some quite brutal and uncomfortable scenes, particularly later on where the scenes of torture bring quite a few gruesome moments, a couple which even made me grimace, and that's something that's hard to do these days without going for shock value.
The partnership between the two leads is intriguing, and there's something about both actors on screen that pulls your attention to them. The two work well together especially with these characters, and personally I believe that George is hugely overlooked in Hollywood.
Skarsgård gave a performance that seems to be like so many of the characters he plays and it was so easy to go along with. However his character does begin to unravel, and in the latter part of the film he is much more intense and under pressure, showing more emotion. It's a well handled progression for the the character and gives him much more to play.
George shows she's a very strong actress here. From the opening scenes she gives a nervous on-edge performance that connects you with her character, and before long you're feeling the unease of Helen Westcott. This really starts to build when Eddie Argo, Skarsgård's character, gets her to approach some local gang members who are facing off to each other.
His role is actually quite important as he plays a character who has to explain some of the more complex and scientific reasoning behind the whole plot, and while he plays it well, a mixture of his performance, the audio, and the writing, means that it is difficult to understand or follow.
Part of it was the pace of the delivery, some of it was that I just found it hard to actually hear his lines. Although I usually appreciate film makers who grace the audience with a modicum of intelligence, with the difficult content and the delivery, I actually lost track of the reasoning and this has a pretty big effect in the later stages of the film.
Not only does it taint the rest of the film somewhat, bringing it down to a more simple serial killer hunt, but the character of the killer is diminished due to this moment, when we do meet them and hear their tale they just seem plain nuts rather than the more science based rationalisation that I think was intended for them.
When the killer revisits some of the initial speeches I could see that there was supposed to be a much clearer connection, something stronger and more resonating with the audience. Instead I remained confused and it felt as though a pretty major plot thread slipped away.
However that's not to say that the ending was poor, there were some great reveals and twists and it wrapped up the story and characters well. It's in this ending that Skarsgård really starts to bring out a strong performance and his character comes into his own.
There's something to be said for the writing, and direction, which gives the characters some great back story without over explaining in typical Hollywood style, delivers some great dialogue and emotionally starved moments from the characters, and builds the tension and suspense really well without too many big set pieces.
There were a few scenes that went against this though, the head of the police squad seemed almost too much a parody of Captain's in police films, but thankfully his appearances are short, and a few moments of complete disregard for police procedure seem to stand out against the exposure we've had through TV and film – no warrant for a house search would render almost the entire case useless and no call to waiting backup to chase down a van leaving the very same house the backup is already heading to.
Another actor of note in the film is Ashley Waters. I also saw him in Sugarhouse at the Edinburgh Film Festival. There he gave a superb performance, and while his role here isn't as big in terms of screen time as that film, it is comparable. He's really proving to be a strong and versatile actor.
Overall I really did enjoy this film, it did have some flaws but for the most part it carried strong scripting and characterisation, and some very good performances.
It does borrow something from the Saw franchise (isn't it interesting that WAZ could be seen as Saw backwards) as well as a feeling of The Vanishing or Spoorloos. There's nothing overly obvious though that doesn't stop WAZ from being it's own dark and clever story, in fact it's more in the realm of Spoorloos than Vanishing and Saw, it's more edgy and clever than it is Hollywood.
Perhaps with a second viewing and a little more gleamed from the early explanations of the scientific plot thread, this could have more depth to it, but as it is it's a strong, dark, and more intelligent thriller than most. Well filmed, strongly directed, some very good performances and delivers some great moments of tension and uncomfortable horror