Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Control (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 23, 2005

Directed by Tim Hunter/written by Todd Slavkin & Darren Swimmer/starring Ray Liotta, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Rodriguez, Kathleen Robertson, Polly Walker, Stephen Rea/ DEJ Productions

A convicted murderer is given a second chance with an experimental drug and a new identity.

Tim Hunter is one of those guys who made one really great movie – his being the landmark 1986 teen-alienation film River’s Edge – then seemed to drop off the face of the Earth. I don’t really know why. He’s mostly been doing TV work for the past 15 years or so, but every now and then he pops up with a feature, usually with no hype or advance buzz, and I’m always interested to see it. Control is his latest, a “busted theatrical” that’s recently arrived with no fanfare on DVD. I knew very little about this movie going in, but with this director and that cast, I was more than willing to give it a shot. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Despite the fact that the cover makes it look like a standard serial-killer thriller, Control is actually a thoughtful drama that explores the issue of criminal rehabilitation. It’s the story of Lee Ray Oliver (Liotta), a violent sociopath on Death Row for multiple homicides. After his execution, he wakes up to find that he’s been given another chance thanks to Dr. Copeland (Dafoe), who’s developed an experimental drug to reduce violent tendencies. Once the pills take effect, he’s given a new identity and set free, supervised by the doctor and a law-enforcement team who monitor his activities at all times. The idea is to see if he can adapt to a normal life with his adjusted personality. Complications naturally ensue.

I really liked the way Control keeps us guessing about what was going to happen and why. The most obvious choice would have been to have Lee Ray trick the doctors into thinking he’s cured, then escape and go on a murderous rampage. Thankfully, Control is a lot smarter than that. We’re never quite sure where the movie is going until it reaches its conclusion. Is Lee Ray, now dubbed “Joe”, actually cured? Is he capable of leaving his past behind and starting a new life? Will society allow him to?

There are no easy answers to questions like these, and Hunter and the writers know that the issues they raise can’t be easily resolved. Even when the movie runs into standard chase-thriller territory, there’s a conscience and a sense of intelligence to this movie that reminds one of a Nicholas Ray film. While the movie is sympathetic to Lee Ray/Joe and gives the usual TV-movie style explanation of how people like him become the way they are, it doesn’t ignore his victims and their families either. It even questions whether Copeland may be doing more harm than good by trying to cure people like him rather than simply dispose of them. Control definitely has a point of view, but it still leaves one with lingering questions and nagging doubts. That’s a good thing.

The film is greatly helped by two excellent performances. It’s no surprise that Liotta excels at playing a remorseless psychopath – we’ve seen him in that kind of role plenty of times. But he’s so good at showing the changes in Lee Ray as he becomes “Joe”; he gradually becomes softer and more human, to the point where he really does seem like a completely different person, and Liotta is absolutely convincing. It’s a terrific performance, and it’s a shame that more people won’t see it. Yet Dafoe is every bit his equal as the conflicted Dr. Copeland, a man whose unwavering belief in the value of his project initially blinds him to its potential for failure, and the possible human cost. These are two excellent actors working at the top of their game.

Yes, there are some awkward and contrived moments – of course Joe almost immediately gains a love interest (Rodriguez) who may be half his age, and the romantic triangle between Copeland, his young colleague (Robertson) and his ex-wife (Walker) seems a little forced at times. These elements sometimes feel more like shoehorned plot conveniences than natural occurrences. But the solid story at the center keeps the film grounded, and the work by Liotta and Dafoe is never less than riveting.

Some people think that “straight to video” movies are all negligible and dismissible due purely to the fact that they never played in theaters. But a movie like Control shows that isn’t always the case. It’s better than a lot of recent movies that HAVE opened in theaters, and certainly more worthy of your time and money than something like Alone in the Dark or Son of the Mask. If anything, Control proves that some movies are too good for Hollywood to know what to do with.

***1/2 2/23/05

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