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Based on the musical of the same name, director Michael Berry’s film Stuck is the story of six strangers trapped on a subway car who change each other’s lives in meaningful ways.
Or at least, that’s what the movie tries to achieve. Unfortunately, it doesn’t accomplish its goal.
The characters are all one-note stereotypes. During their time trapped on a subway car, they reveal their own prejudices toward each other, as well as huge details of their lives. The personal stories, the elements that attempt to make each character unique, are all shared through song. However, it’s easy to guess who each character will be because they’re roles we’ve seen many times before.
As each person shares a little more of themselves with the others, the characters’ facial expressions are meant to convey internal change. There are sympathetic looks, a few words of apology, but none of it feels like true growth. The characters who enter the subway car are the same characters when they leave the subway car.
One of the most frustrating elements of the film is the “all is forgiven” attitude toward one character who has been stalking another character for several days before the events of the film. Though we learn the intentions are “innocent,” it’s angering to watch as the other characters give him a pass because he’s a good artist.
The musical aspects here are the strongest elements. The choreography, the lyrics, the musical arrangements, and the performances are all effective, with the individual character songs among the only moments where genuine emotion is conveyed. The musical styles are unique to each character, giving them more depth than the dialogue conveys.
All the actors are strong singers, which is refreshing since several movies lately have featured actors who can’t sing well, or at all, in singing roles. It’s one of the areas where Stuck succeeds. Ashanti is particularly powerful in her vocal performance, though Giancarlo Esposito also stands out as an impressive vocalist.
Though Esposito sings several of the film’s songs, his character is the least explored. He isn’t given a backstory like the others, and it’s unclear if he’s meant to be a conduit for the others to reveal themselves or a character in his own right.
In a film like Stuck, the point is to never judge a book by its cover. The people we pass on the street everyday are dealing with things about which we will mostly likely never know. Hardships in their lives may be the reason why they’re impatient or cruel, so it’s a reminder to treat everyone with kindness.
It’s not a bad message. But it’s one that’s been delivered before in more effective ways.
“Inspired by a true story” is a tag line that has been used beyond the point of meaninglessness. If you google “true story horror movies,” Dracula will come up, for lord’s sake. But there are some films that can take true events and mine them for the psychological underpinnings that chill us all. Here’s a list of our five favorites.
5. Stuck (2007)
A nasty tabloid feature boasting both gallows humor and blood by the gallon, Stuck is an underappreciated gem from director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator). Mena Suvari plays a role based on a real life woman who, inebriated, hit a man with her car. The victim became lodged in her windshield. She chose to park her car in the garage and wait for the man to die rather than face the consequences and save his life.
While this sounds unbelievable, the fact that it’s based in true events helps the story build credibility. Stuart’s direction makes the most of the mean laughs available given the subject matter, never taking the situation too seriously, but never treating the victim’s predicament as an outright joke, either.
More impressive, though, is the commitment the cast brings to the proceedings. Suvari offers almost uncalled for nuance and character arc, while Stephen Rea’s crumpled, hangdog appearance belies an intestinal fortitude the driver didn’t see coming.
This is a wild movie, and one that’s far more watchable than the premise may suggest. Like any tabloid trash or car accident, you know you shouldn’t watch, but you just can’t look away.
4. Wolf Creek (2005)
Though Greg McLean wrote the story for Wolf Creek years before the film was made, by the time he polished the screenplay he’d blended in elements from two different Aussie marauders. Ivan Milat was a New South Wales man who kidnapped hitchhikers, torturing and killing them in the woods. Much closer to the time of the film’s release was the case of Bradley John Murdock. He had a tow truck, forced two British tourists off the road, murdering one while the other escaped. Wolf Creek’s actual release was delayed in the northern part of the country where Murdock’s trial was still going on.
Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, McLean’s happy backpackers find themselves immobile outside Wolf Creek National Park when their car stops running. As luck would have it, friendly bushman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) drives up offering a tow back to his camp, where he promises to fix the vehicle. The two different murderers influenced McLean’s tale and Jarrett’s character amiable sadist, but it’s at least comforting to know that this isn’t 100% nonfiction.
3. The Snowtown Murders (2011)
First time filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s movie examines one family’s functional disregard for the law and hinges on the relationship between a charismatic psychopath and a quiet, wayward teen. Unfortunately, The Snowtown Murders mines a true story. John Bunting tortured and killed eleven people during his spree in South Australia in the Nineties.
An unflinching examination of a predator swimming among prey, Snowtown succeeds where many true crime films fail because of its understatement, its casual observational style, and its unsettling authenticity. More than anything, though, the film excels due to one astounding performance.
Daniel Henshall cuts an unimpressive figure on screen – a round faced, smiling schlub. But he brings Bunting an amiability and confrontational fearlessness that provides insight into what draws people to a sadistic madman.
2. Compliance (2012)
Compliance is an unsettling, frustrating and upsetting film about misdirected and misused obedience. It’s also one of the most impeccably made and provocative films of 2012 – a cautionary tale that’s so unnerving it’s easier just to disbelieve. But don’t.
Writter/director Craig Zobel – who began his career as co-creator of the brilliant comic website Homestar Runner (so good!) – takes a decidedly dark turn with this “based-on-true-events” tale. It’s a busy Friday night at a fast food joint and they’re short staffed. Then the police call and say a cashier has stolen some money from a customer’s purse.
A Milgram’s experiment come to life, the film spirals into nightmare as the alleged thief’s colleagues agree to commit increasingly horrific deeds in the name of complying with authority.
Zobel remains unapologetically but respectfully truthful in his self-assured telling. He doesn’t just replay a tragic story, he expertly crafts a tense and terrifying movie. With the help of an anxious score, confident camera work, and a superb cast, Zobel masterfully recreates a scene that’s not as hard to believe as it is to accept.
1. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1989)
Like Snowtown Murders, released more than two decades later, Henry is an unforgivingly realistic portrayal of evil. Michael Rooker is brilliant as serial killer Henry (based on real life murderer Henry Lee Lucas). We follow him through his humdrum days of stalking and then dispatching his prey, until he finds his own unwholesome kind of family in the form of buddy Otis and his sister Becky.
What’s diabolically fascinating, though, is the workaday, white trash camaraderie of the psychopath relationship in this film, and the grey areas where one crazy killer feels the other has crossed some line of decency.
Director John McNaughton’s picture offers a uniquely unemotional telling – no swelling strings to warn us danger is afoot and no hero to speak of to balance the ugliness. He confuses viewers because the characters you identify with are evil, and even when you think you might be seeing this to understand the origins of the ugliness, he pulls the rug out from under you again by creating an untrustworthy narrative voice. It’s a genius technique given the subject, a serial killer who confessed to as many as 3000 killings, most of those discredited as fiction. His film is so nonjudgmental, though, so flatly unemotional, that it’s honestly hard to watch.
Don’t be off put by the hashtag in #Stuck. Writer/director Stuart Acher’s film is less a glib comment on social media alienation and more a savvy reimagining of the romantic comedy.
Holly (Madeline Zima) and Guy (Joel David Moore) are stuck in an epic traffic jam. To make matters worse, this is simply the “morning after” ride back to Holly’s car, which is still at the bar where the two hooked up the night before.
“It’s easier to have sex with a stranger than make conversation with one,” notes Holly early in their uncomfortable alone time.
On its surface, the script feels almost like a writing workshop challenge, but Archer’s assured direction and game performances from the two leads make it work. Acher’s story weaves from the shame and claustrophobia of the morning after to the drunken debauchery of the night before.
The flashback is told in reverse order, allowing us to learn more about the two based on what they’ve forgotten, just as they learn about each other based on the time each must now spend in the other’s company.
It’s hard to sustain interest with little more than in-car acting – unless you have Tom Hardy behind the wheel – and there are certainly times when #Stuck strains to keep your attention. But on the whole, the slow revelation of character feels natural and the performances are sympathetic enough to keep you invested.
Zima has a real Meg Ryan quality about her, which may make the film feel more like an outright romantic comedy than it would otherwise. She and Moore have an uneasy chemistry that suits the begrudgingly burgeoning relationship, and while their banter is never a laugh riot, more often than not it’s bright and enjoyable.
To alleviate the tension for the audience, anyway, Acher’s camera periodically swings out of Guy’s car and takes a peek at the goings on in the other cars sitting motionless on the LA freeway. It’s a fun distraction and a light handed way of underscoring the overall theme of the film: that often, time wasted is more valuable than time spent on task.