Movie Review: Anamorph

A visual treat for Dafoe fans that goes well beyond the conventional horror genre into questions of reality and fantasy and how, or if, we tell the difference

Willem Dafoe is breaking away from his “Spiderman” Green Goblin image and donning the trench coat of the detective.  In newcomer director Henry Miller’s seething mystery thriller “Anamorph,” Dafoe is on the trail of that most despicable of baddies, the serial killer.  As Stan the detective, Dafoe was part of the killing of serial slasher “Uncle Eddie” a few years prior.  But there is only one problem with killing a killer: you never can be absolutely sure you got the right one.

Stan is accompanied by partner Carl (Scott Speedman) in his search for the most grisly of slicer dicers; only Carl is as much a competitor as he is a partner.  A young lion climbing the police ladder, Carl is keeping an eye on Stan, nipping on his heels, checking his files, as much for himself as for the man who is over them both.  Pressure from above and below is starting to fracture Stan’s grip on reality.

The camera work, the story and the relationship between the leads is as foggy and shifting as the distorted mirror images that eventually tell the story.

 Emmy nominated cinematographer Fred Murphy (“ Witness Protection”—1999 and “The Final Days”—1989) takes the dark, moody approach from his “Mothman

Prophecies” in the context of some excellent screenwriting and set design to pull together a totally creepy environment in which Stan can barely find his way.

The serial killer leaves clues in the form of anamorphic images, pictures inside of pictures and pictures that depict different things depending on angles and lighting.  The lack of absolute reality fits perfectly into the mystery thriller genre.  Humans become manikins, illegible scrawls become people and things, mirrors appear and disappear and the abandoned hulks of yesterday’s fun houses have become the home to the isolated detritus of a burned out society.

Shot in Manhattan and what appears to be some of the most dilapidated and forsaken sections of the outlying boroughs in New York, lenser Murphy incorporates his work into a three stage digital intermediate process that allows an unparalleled richness of photographic textures.  The film uses both out-of-sync shutter techniques and digital image manipulation to create strange and other-worldly flashbacks.  The shutter work puts vertical striations through the images that give the impression of holographic pictures; fantastic illusions that we see right through even though we would swear they are real.

The camera work is not the jerky hand-held hodge-podge that makes up many horror films today, it is very stable, with rotating pans and spirals.  This is refreshing, to say the least, and allows the viewers to take in the beautiful complexity of the sets and the depth of Dafoe’s acting.  The constant weaving in and out of the anagrams, flashbacks and shape-shifting pictures demands a relatively simple plot.  The point of the film is the visuals, not the fairly conventional murder mystery story.

There is a scientific thread running through the film that sticks to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but this makes the false and gossamer nature of the people and places all the more perplexing.  In spite of bordering on a Sherlock Holmes plot the film is sure footed in staying away from outright fantasy and science fiction.  This is a very smart move because Dafoe’s performance is just too good and too real to be playing second fiddle to special effects.

Excellent supporting work by Peter Stormare as an ex-detective who has seen too much.  He is able to use his understated Swedish accent to add a sense of mystery to his role as an obscure antique dealer.  Clea DuVall plays Stan’s conscience as he wrestles with his past failure to save their mutual friend from the earlier serial killings.  Paul Lazar plays one of the funniest and most thoroughly messed up medical examiners ever seen on scene—his eyes seem to operate more like something attached to a crustacean than actual human organs.

A moody and bass rich sound track underscores the danger and confusion that saturates Stan’s life as he not only questions the fidelity of his friends but his own grip on reality.  The R rating is for real as the film depicts some very graphic mutilations and bizarre dismemberings, although this is not overwrought and is used as it has to be to further the plot.

Release: April 18, 2008 (Limited New York, Los Angeles start of May)
MPAA: Rated R for disturbing grisly images, some violence and language
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color