Reviewed by Nomad
Starring Josh Lucas, Lena Headey, Brian Cox, Beatrice Miller, Dallas Roberts
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart", Tell-Tale sets a dark tone right from the start. Terry (Lucas) is the single parent to his small daughter Angela, who is stricken with a disease that threatens to calcify all her tendons, rendering her unable to function (and no, it’s not called boneitis). Horrible, huh? Adding insult to injury, Terry has life-threatening heart problems.
Normally I'd start moaning about forced empathy, but for all the heavy-handedness, these conditions are handled with impressive finesse, woven directly into the story. Angela's doctor, Elizabeth (Headey), has bonded closely with her patient and reserves a portion of that love for her father. All appears to be shaping up for the makings of a fine Lifetime Channel movie about second chances when Terry is rushed to the hospital in need of an immediate heart transplant!
No sooner does his new ticker get plugged in than the nightmarish visions of his own grisly demise begin. Feverish dreams then turn to flashes of past life as he walks into the proximity of a specific person, triggering an impulse toward bloody vengeance that will not be ignored. The previous owner of his new heart wants payback, and he'll take control of this new machine he's attached to to get it.
We've certainly seen variations on this theme many times before, and none of them waved Edgar Allan Poe around to tell their story (or listed him as a writer, giving Edgar another IMDB listing), but Tell-Tale has two essential things going for it: a highly likable cast and a swift pace peppered with some bloodshed you'll cringe away from at times. All the makings of a great time in horror land! Brian Cox shows up as a weathered cop who has seen one too many innocent victims and senses a kindred spirit in Terry, essentially understanding the man beneath the monster. He's cynical, sarcastic, and most importantly, funny! A belabored groan from him turns any scene into instant gold. Cox’s Van Doren character starts out as if he’ll be the film’s conscience and then takes a hard left turn, providing Terry with all the tools needed to collect his pounds of flesh. SCORE!!
Josh Lucas seems like such a nice guy you'll forgive him almost any level of bloodshed, unlike most unsympathetic, relentless screen vigilantes. You’ll see his transformation from twitching, reluctant father, unable to control his own mechanics, to calculating killer with the soul of a man just begging for a bit of peace. Lena Headey is not given a great deal to do, resigned to pained looks of sorrow for her favorite family. She's still such a good actress, she makes the most of these moments. I'm sure most of our readers would go see this movie if all she did was play Pictionary, so mission accomplished! Her inevitable love affair with Terry injects just the right amount of steam to the film without bringing the pace to a grinding halt as an excuse to remove some clothing from the principal actors. Terry's daughter does her best to be sweet and adorable and excels in both categories. Her character isn't forced to carry any of the weight of the emotional content, so not much more can be expected. She’s a fragile little doll but doesn’t spend every scene trying to elicit a great big “AWWWW” from the audience, and that is a rare thing indeed.
As stated before, once Terry starts his killing spree, the film takes off with a frantic pace made doubly disorienting through use of jarring sound and flashing, violent flashback cenes shot from the perspective of the victim. These visuals demand action,and whether Terry likes it or not, he will comply. The only question left for the viewer is which team embraces the greater evil. As themysterious demise of Terry's benefactor is revealed, the evil-ometer clearly tips into red on the bad guys' side (aka anyone not friendly to Lucas). As Terry seems to evolve and the vengeful heart gains more control, the movie evolves with it, becoming a calmer sea of bloodshed. This doesn’t last long as the baddies have been closing in and get their chance to prove why they are the true evil in the film. A heart-stopping performance by Dallas Roberts seals that deal. After Tell-Tale, I wouldn't be surprised to see more baddie roles for him. Just throwing evil characters at the audience is not enough for this crew as they veer away from PG13 to an R rating, allowing a healthy spray of the red stuff and a shocking dose of gore to hit the screen … something I didn't expect from a movie with such big name actors. The film's finale will have you squirming in your seat.
Tell-Tale isn't without its faults as the story loses track in places, but it never derails entirely. Style, pace, superior acting, and gripping tone save the day. It just goes to show you how the skilled hand of a superior director can pull all the elements together to create something NOT typical. This film is slick, but not overly so. It’s got some great visual tricks, but not so much that it slips into indie art house film territory. It’s got the mushy family in peril elements but only sort of shows you that side and then puts it in a box to make way for a horrific scene or three. Tell-Tale is unflinching. Here's hoping this film gets the theatrical release it deserves.
4 out of 5
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