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Cry of the Owl: Another Highsmith thriller, and it's a bit of a downer

Julia Stiles as Jenny Thierolf in the Cry of the Owl.

E1 Entertainment

2 out of 4 stars


The Cry of the Owl

  • Written and directed by Jamie Thraves
  • Starring Paddy Considine, Julia Stiles, James Gilbert, Caroline Dhavernas and Nicholas Campbell
  • Classification: 14A

Mystery writer Patricia Highsmith's world is populated by serene, sometimes even cheerful murderers. Remember fun-loving strangler Bruno in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train? Or John Malkovich's suave serial killer in Ripley's Game? That Highsmith's psychopaths have good manners somehow makes them more chilling. Why, they seem just like you and me. As normal as Saturday afternoon.

Maybe the problem with The Cry of the Owl, a relentlessly disturbing film based on a 1962 Highsmith novel, is that it never tricks us into believing its natural-born killers have anything to do with us. We never get comfortable with the characters. So we are never troubled by their long, messy goodbyes.

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We get our first good look at Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine) at his office, where he complains to co-workers he's not feeling well. He certainly looks beleaguered - unshaven, grimacing, hair all matted down. Headache? a colleague wonders. No, tumour, Robert jokes, prompting uneasy smiles all around. Just before this scene, we came upon Robert standing outside a country house in the dark, swallowing hard while spying on a pretty stranger, Jenny (Julia Stiles). On a subsequent visit, Jenny invites her stalker in, wondering aloud if fate brought them together. Then she gives Robert a freshly baked cookie.

And these are the two normal characters in The Cry of the Owl!

Their worse halves - Robert's ex, Nickie (Caroline Dhavernas), and Jenny's former fiancé, Greg (James Gilbert), are where the real trouble starts. They want their lovers back. Or destroyed. Whatever's easiest.

There's the seed of an interesting movie in all of these creepy goings-on. Love is foreplay for revenge in Highsmith's novel. That's certainly an intriguing film theme. But where Highsmith made her doubles' death match credible by virtue of an unruffled, clear-headed prose style, British filmmaker Jamie Thraves, best known for his Coldplay videos, merely underlines the book's irrational, crazy plot. The result, not surprisingly, is an irrational, crazy movie.

The actors don't always help. Stiles is fine as Jenny, managing to create a character out of comfy sweaters and a spooked look. But Considine ( Hot Fuzz) is a chore in the film's lead role, wandering morosely through the proceedings, as if battling a nasty head cold. Unfortunately, The Cry of the Owl only really comes alive when Robert's ex enters the picture. Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas's ( Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story) Nickie is vivacious, always smiling - the picture of health and happiness. She's also a dangerous psychotic.

Nickie could be Tom Ripley's daughter. She's the only character here who has access to the dangerous fun that is Patricia Highsmith's crime world. Alas, she only has a small part in what is otherwise a pretty dreary, un-fun movie.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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