Friday, March 20, 2009

Review: "Knowing"

Since winning a Best Actor Oscar 13 years ago, Nicolas Cage has been perhaps the strictest adherent to the “One for me, one for them” school of choosing roles. He’ll do a small, serious film for artistic reasons, like starring in Martin Scorsese’s “Bringing Out the Dead,” and then immediately follow it with a crassly commercial bit of tripe.

I don’t know if it’s cynical, but it’s good way for a star to retain his box office clout while also finding time for more personal projects that don’t generate much heat at the ticket booth. It’s led to some wonderful, offbeat performances in quirky movies that few people saw – go rent “The Weather Man” or “Matchstick Men” for two finer examples – sandwiched in between some absolute bubble-gum dreck: “Ghost Rider,” those “National Treasure” flicks.

After watching “Knowing,” I honestly don’t know which category it falls into.

At first blush, it certainly seems to be a small, intense thriller about a scientist who encounters some disturbing numbers that appear to predict the future. But it builds and builds upon itself, the events taking upon a broader and broader sphere of impact, until the movie reaches juggernaut proportions, with some huge action set-pieces straight out of a summer blockbuster.

The final act may leave some audience members feeling cheated, but I thought director Alex Proyas (“Dark City”) and his quartet of screenwriters earned the outsized ending, slowly and painstakingly ratcheting up the pressure, and the mystery.

Cage plays John Koestler, an M.I.T. scientist who’s raising his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) after the death of his wife. They live in a huge house that was once grand but is deteriorating under their feet. Things seem OK on the surface, but underneath there’s a dry rot to their relationship, too.

The mystery begins when a 50-year-old time capsule is opened at Caleb’s school. All the other kids got a picture drawn by a student from 1959, but Caleb received a page filled with numbers written by a disturbed little girl. John gets hold of the numbers and figures out they indicate the date of every major accident or tragedy over the last five decades, complete with the number of people killed.

Of course, there’s several more dates that have yet to happen, so it’s up to John to try to outpace these prognostications of doom. He tracks down the daughter of the girl who wrote the numbers (Rose Byrne), who has a child of her own. Meanwhile, creepy blonde guys in black overcoats turn up, menacing the children and leaving little black rocks as totems.

“Knowing” veers back and forth between some wonderful moments of tension and menace, but whenever they have to stop and have a long dialogue scene where John puzzles things out, the movie crashes to earth.

Proyas is a great visionary for mood and visuals, but when it comes to the meat-and-potatoes work of moving the plot from point A to B, his direction turns pedestrian. I kept wanting the overcoat guys to show up again to get things back to spooky.

I can’t tell you much about the last half of the movie, since its appeal lies in taking you to unexpected places. Suffice to say that some of it truly is unexpected, and some of it we’ve seen a dozen times before. With “Knowing,” you never quite know what you’re going to get.

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