Review: Faces in the Crowd (15) / Directed by: Julien Magnat / Screenplay by: Julien Magnat, Kelly Smith / Starring: Milla Jovovich, Sarah Wayne Callies, Julian McMahon / Release Date: Out Now
Prosopagnosia is a disorder where face perception is distorted and the brain fails to recognise the faces of every day folk that the patient sees every day. Often the only way the sufferer can get over this disorder is through association of objects such as beards or scars. The condition is associated with brain damage but it is now thought that 2.5% of the population may suffer from a congenital form of the disorder. Faces in the Crowd takes this unfortunate condition and spins a fiendish serial killer plot around the central conceit that a witness is no longer able to recognise a killer.
The film begins with timid school teacher Anna Merchant (Milla Jovovich) and her boyfriend Bryce (Michael Shanks) living in a city, happily getting by like any young yuppie couple. Anna likes to go out with her two singleton friends to pretentious bars every now and then and Bryce seems more into Anna than she is into him. A serial killer known as ‘the tear jerker’ who cries over his murdered victims is making headlines for claiming victims across the city. One night out and walking home alone, Anna witnesses the tear jerkers latest victim having her throat slit. The killer comes after her and she is injured and falls off a bridge, smacking her head on the way down. When Anna comes to in hospital later, she is horrified to see other people seem to have replaced all those she knows and loves. Understandably confused she is diagnosed with ‘face blindness’ (Prosopagnosia) and is unable to recognise people due to her injuries with people’s faces constantly changing. This comes much to the frustration of Detective Kerrest (Julian McMahon), the homicide detective hunting the killer, who wants her to be a witness. With the help of psychiatrist Dr Langenkamp (Marianne Faithfull) Anna starts to put her life back together. Trouble is the killer has started to stalk her, returning items she lost that fateful night, but with her condition she never knows who she is talking to.
Despite being marketed as kind of a horror movie which it isn’t really, Faces in the Crowd should have been a slam dunk, the ingenious premise writes itself. Trouble is it never rises above merely entertaining and has some massive flaws when it comes to character development. Around the mid-section when the killer starts to stalk Anna it’s truly thrilling and leads to some wonderful set pieces like a chase through a subway train or a stalking via mobile phone through a packed nightclub. The film then throws in an unearned and unnecessary romantic subplot which casts doubt on all the sympathy the main character has earned. It’s a sudden shift where Anna seems to fall in love with Detective Kerrest purely for the fact that he has a beard and is therefore easy to recognise. When this happens you just end up feeling sorry for her old boyfriend rather than being invested in this new development. Anna comes across as very fickle and shallow because of this and her and her friends habit of rating the rear ends of men they meet in bars.
Apart from the previously mentioned brilliant suspense sequences, director Julien Magnat makes the smart decision to have the characters in Anna’s life be played by different actors in every scene after her accident. This truly gets across the confusion of the character and is a wonderfully surreal touch which keeps you guessing. Part of the fun is seeing who is going to appear and how in the next scene. Characters Anna doesn’t know are often played by the same actor so if she sees three cops talking in a hallway then they all appear identical. I’m unsure if this was in the script or was a directorial decision but for an inexperienced director it was a ballsy move which could have fallen flat but is really effective in the context of this story.
Beyond the great premise and pacey and exciting screenplay, sadly not much else works. The problem is down to casting and character development. Milla Jovovich is fine as the woman in peril and does frightened very well, but because of her previous preferred roles I kept expecting her to pull out twin sawn off shotguns and start blowing people away. Apart from her brain damage, Anna is as previously mentioned, a pretty shallow and fickle character, Jovovich’s previous background as a model doesn’t really help matters and if the role were played by someone else it may have made all the difference. Her friends are even worse, the writers seem to have just studied the promos for the last Sex and the City movie and decided that yes, this is how women are. The two other important roles in Anna’s life post-accident are even worse in terms of who they cast. Julian McMahon is terribly miscast as a grizzled homicide detective and you can tell because of how much he seems like any moment he will be revealed to be the killer. McMahon has a natural sliminess to him that lends itself towards rich creeps and does nothing to indicate he could play this kind of role. All the depth this character seems to have is a beard and a beer belly. He falls for Anna seemingly after just the second meeting on a whim because his psychologist mate questions him on it. Worst of all is Marianne Faithfull as a supposedly brilliant psychiatrist. Her line delivery is as wooden as Pinocchio and nothing about her rings true at all.
If you can look past these deep flaws then there is fun to be had here. Faces in the Crowd is reminiscent of the glossy whodunnits of the early 90s and the kind of film they don’t make much anymore. Just don’t expect the film to live up to its brilliant premise.