Review: 'The Crazies' showcases smart social horror
Civilization is, at best, a verbal agreement that we trust each other to uphold, and it seems to me the older I get that all it would take to topple it all is the slightest excuse, the smallest push, and it would all end up in ash.
That's the fear at the heart of "The Crazies," a loose remake of George Romero's 1973 film, and it's a surprisingly effective and engaging film that hits the ground running and never lets up. Anchored by strong lead performances by Tim Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, the movie is being sold as a sort of pseudo-zombie film, but The Crazies themselves are not the thing to be most afraid of in the film. Instead, it's the reaction to The Crazies that is truly frightening, and what makes the film work is just how grounded it is in the total distrust of authority that seems to be growing in our society these days. It would make a fascinating double-feature with Michael Winterbottom's recent documentary "The Shock Doctrine," an explicit illustration of the worst-case scenarios presented in that film.
This is the second Romero remake that has turned out to be surprisingly strong. Zack Snyder's "Dawn Of The Dead" gave fanboys fits while it was in production, but when it was released, it turned out to be a good horror film with a great opening sequence, and a lot of what made it work was the casting. Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, and Jake Weber all elevated the film with their work, never once treating the material like they were slumming. The same is true of "The Crazies," with Olyphant and Mitchell playing a married couple who are the sheriff and the family doctor for a small town in the midwest. Joe Anderson as a deputy and Danielle Panabaker as Mitchell's assistant also do strong work, really putting a face on the human toll of this particular tragedy.
So what are The Crazies? Basically, they're just people who have been infected with a virus, and it's all a sad, stupid accident. There's no intentional bad guy in the film, no moustache-twirling villain. Instead, it's just dumb luck and a cold governmental methodical clean-up that provides the slow-burn scares of the film. Things start small, when a local man walks onto the high-school baseball diamond during a game carrying a shotgun. Sheriff Dutton (Olyphant) has no choice but to drop him, in front of everyone. That one action is the start of a chain of events that goes south so fast that by the time anyone realizes it's happening, it's too late to stop.
I think it's no accident that there is a huge mistrust of authority inherent to a lot of pop culture these days. We're in unstable times, and people are worried about their families, their future, and the basics of human survival. We're raised in Western society to believe that our government is there to take care of those things for us, to guarantee us a quality of life, and when that starts to fall apart, it comes out in the entertainment. Generally, things are most interesting at the movies when they're worse in real life.
There's an impressive matter-of-fact quality to the way Breck Eisner stages his Apocalypse. And that's really the throughline between the two versions, Romero and remake. The end of the world as a mundane chemical mistake. That's what scares me... not calculated evil, not evil tied to a complicated mythology, not evil of even the random human kind... but dumb luck. There's a ruthless reaction to the mistake that's made, the infected and the responsible both paying a price, and it's played out in such a methodical, clear-eyed style that it's hard to resist. It's far less of a "horror" film than a "survival" film, and it's about the major players doing whatever they have to do to make it through an insane situation. It's convicing.
There's a real Stephen King vibe here, and for anyone who just read King's Under The Dome, this is going to feel like a very similar ride. That's not a bad thing. Scott Kosar and Ray Wright's script is exactly as expository as it needs to be, and exactly as action-thrill-oriented as it needs to be, and exactly as character-driven as it needs to be. It never tips its hand one way or another. It doesn't reinvent any wheel, but it's a reeeeeeeeally well-made wheel.
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