This wonderfully dark, offbeat thriller is adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel and could also be seen as a sort of 're-imaging' of master French thriller-maker Claude Chabrol's 1987 film, which was based on the same source. Arguably, by returning the story to the novel's original setting (even if it is clearly Toronto standing in for New York) this little-known gem by British newcomer Jamie Thraves winds up being much more disturbing and affecting than the elegantly constructed, over-adorned elaborations of the French version, capturing the author's droll and deliciously bleak imagination perfectly.
Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine) is a shy, troubled man, quietly sinking into ever-more turmoil. In the aftermath of a nervous breakdown, and having drifted into the middle of an expensive divorce at the insistence of his selfish estranged wife, a numbed Forrester is trapped in a lingering bubble of solitariness and lonely depression. His relations with workmates and acquaintances are strained and disconnected; and acute social awkwardness seems to turn all his introverted attempts at finding common ground with strangers into a parade of farcical embarrassments made up of one misjudged joke or ill-advised comment after another -- usually received with a blank stare by those around him. Forrester's only solace is the discovery of a picturesque house, set beyond a darkened copse that runs along the highway he traverses to and from his banal job at an Aeronautics firm each day.
Here, from behind a tree, he observes the homely but pretty Jenny (Julia Stiles) in her house, and he starts regularly to stop by to watch her serenely going about her day-to-day chores through the lighted windows, while she listens to her Joan as Policewoman CD. She seems to represent to him an image of simple domestic happiness. There is nothing sexual about his voyeurism; it is simply this comforting image of a warm and harmonious life, set in the middle of so much desolation and darkness, that attracts him back time and time again. It is a glimpse into a peaceful, ordered existence -- something that seems completely beyond his reach; a dream he can only view from afar.
Then, one day, everything changes. Jenny discovers him lurking behind the tree. But instead of running indoors and calling the police as he expects, a bemused Robert is invited inside. He tells her all about his depression over a cup of coffee at her rustic kitchen table and she tells him that their strange meeting was always meant to be as 'everything happens for a reason'. Jenny and Robert strike up a tentative friendship, mostly at her behest. She turns up outside his firm as he's leaving work, or phones him up regularly. They meet often to talk. This friendship coincides with Jenny dumping her boyfriend, who then blames Robert, as do all Jenny's friends, despite his protestations that there is nothing going on between them. Then Jenny tells him, quite out of the blue, that she is in love with him! Robert has to tell he that he's not really interested in taking things to this level. Her ex-boyfriend is even more upset about it though and Robert's life suddenly lurches into a nightmarish spiral of paranoia, obsession and guilt after a confrontation between him and the angry ex-boyfriend leads to a roadside punch-up on a bridge late at night. A lucky punch leaves the attacker face down in a stream. Robert manages to drag him out of the water and he leaves him spluttering and coughing on the verge of the road. Bruised and angry, Robert has had just about enough of the whole thing, but then events take a completely unexpected turn.
The ex-boyfriend goes missing. In fact no one seems to have seen him since Robert left him on the side of the road that night. The police are suspicious of his version of events. They drag the lake. They find a body. Smashed against the rocks and naked, it is unidentifiable. Jenny's friend's now suspect Robert of not having told the truth ... and possibly worse. And the missing man's father even attacks him in the street. Jenny avows her complete faith in him, but his promised promotion suddenly disappears at work and his one friend no longer wants anything to do with him. Even his landlord wants him out. But Robert's troubles haven't even begun yet, as a once innocent friendship descends ever further into chaos and then violence.
"The Cry of the Owl" is a cleverly constructed psychological thriller that works so well because we are invited into the head space of its beleaguered protagonist from the start, and we learn to see the world through his eyes as a tense and untrustworthy place, where even ordinary human relationships are puzzling and constantly fraught with misunderstandings and disputes. Paddy Considine plays the role of the slightly disheveled Robert Forrester beautifully. This flawed character is not really very self-aware, but a strange dislocating atmosphere is established quickly in the slightly odd, almost spiteful attitude other people around him seem to adopt towards him, particularly his ex-wife, Nickie (a really wonderful performance by the beautiful Caroline Dhavenas), who delights in publicly humiliating the man at every turn. Julia Stiles has the difficult task of playing a character who is, to a large extent, something of an enigma, but who has also to come across to us as ordinary and fully rounded, while the possibility that she herself is more than slightly unhinged is always left open. She pulls it off with aplomb. A simple, touching -- if unusual -- relationship is slowly ratcheted up until it leads into a truly Kafka-esque situation that seems impossible to escape. A fatalism haunts the entire movie, as though the character is cursed, but really almost every character in the movie is self-involved and doomed by their own inability to look outside their own situation. Director Jamie Thraves mostly takes a direct, non-showy approach to his direction, giving the film a rough realistic edge; but the film ends on a nicely judged poetic image that captures the haunted mood beautifully, with the whole film playing like some sort of twisted, cruel anxiety dream from the subconscious of Hitchcock.
There is nothing at all flashy about this BBC Films production. It relies completely on old fashioned virtues like having a good story to tell and a great cast with which to tell it (remember those?). It deserves more attention than it will probably now get in the land of straight-to-DVD-with-no-extras where it currently resides, but if you like your thrillers sharp, downbeat and wrought with psychological torment, then you'll do well to give this low-key UK release by Metrodome a try.