by Peter J. O'Connell
Bad Samaritan. Released: May 2018. Runtime: 111 mins. MPAA Rating: R for violence, language throughout, some drug use, and brief nudity.
Horror-inflected thrillers often are set in decaying mansions or cabins in the woods. Director Dean Devlin's Bad Samaritan is partly set in the latter locale but mostly in the uncommon venue of a modernist/minimalist mansion loaded with high-tech gear. Bad Samaritan is actually a techno-thriller, with computers, smart phones, GPSes, digital surveillance systems, etc. almost actors themselves in its plot. Appropriately enough, the movie takes place in the Pacific Northwest, land of rainy weather, tech-adept folks, and serial killers (think Ted Bundy, think the Green River Killer, et al.).
Sean Falco (Robert Sheehan) is an aspiring artsy photographer working with his buddy Carlito (Derek Sandoval) as a valet parker at a pricey restaurant. Sean and Carlito, however, don't just rely on tips. They have a profitable sideline going. While the car owners dine, either Sean or Carlito uses GPSes in the cars as guides to the owners' homes, where the valet becomes a burglar and, using his own technical skills as necessary, robs the house and then returns to the restaurant to deliver the car to the unsuspecting patrons.
One night Sean is particularly enjoying his break-in to the aforementioned modernist/minimalist mansion of a diner whose personality is as unpleasant in its impact on others as his name, Cale Erendreich (David Tennant), is in its sound. Sean finds it curious that the minimalism of Cale's place is broken at several spots by décor featuring horses. But Sean goes from curious to appalled when he discovers in a secret room a brutalized young woman, Katie (Kerry Condon), in equestrian garb and bound and gagged with bridles and harnesses.
Sean frantically tries to free Katie, but he cannot, while Carlito, for his part, is increasingly frantic on the phone to Sean trying to get him to bring the car back before Cale can no longer be put off. Sean puts in a call to 9-1-1 and gets back to the restaurant just barely in time. He then returns to the mansion in his own car to see what the police will do, but Cale has one-upped him in a shrewd move. The patrolmen find nothing wrong.
Guilt-ridden at his failure to get Katie free, but afraid to reveal his burglaries, Sean enters into a struggle of armrest-gripping suspense with Cale, fought not mano-a-mano but digital device vs. digital device. The slightly cadaverous-looking Cale is played with chilling brilliance by David Tennant as he unleashes cyber-warfare, not just against Sean but also against Sean's girlfriend and parents. Robert Sheehan, too, is fine as the somewhat “dreamboaty” Sean who has to, in effect, win a war with a monster. Sean becomes increasingly depressed as he has to move up the law enforcement ladder from patrolmen to detectives to FBI agents in a seemingly futile effort to rescue Katie.
Devlin's movie offers all the usual dark delights of thrillers—ominous music, jump scares, etc.--within its twisty techno framework. Its high level of intensity dissipates somewhat, however, when the action moves from the mansion in the city to a cabin in the woods and becomes more conventional (and bloody). In any case, the battle of good and bad samaritans makes for a gripping two hours as it raises the question: Does no good deed go unpunished?
“Footnotes” to the film: (1) Curiously, Bad Samaritan is the second recent film to link an interest in horses to a murderous psychopath. Thoroughbreds is the other. (2) Is the eventual fate of Cale's mansion some kind of a nod in the direction of a 1960s film by master Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni?