New to Blu: David Tennant in Psycho-Thriller Bad Samaritan

David Tennant is beloved by a generation of sci-fi fans for his warm, eccentric, yet deceptively complex and emotionally tortured Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who. His performance as The Doctor, and for that matter his real-life persona (he is a regular on British comedy and chat shows), is so lovable, funny, and charming that when he was cast as Kilgrave on Jessica Jones it was genuinely difficult to imagine him making a convincing villain. Yet convincing he was: he broke type with terrifyingly strong results, and gave us one of Marvel’s creepiest on-screen villains, a sadistic and predatory Big Bad for the Me Too era. Now Tennant is back to play the villain once again in the indie thriller Bad Samaritan, and the results are equally frightening, though channeling a whole different kind of crazy than Kilgrave. While the film as a whole is not perfect, Tennant’s captivating psycho is worth the price of admission alone, and director Dean Devlin (The Librarians) ratchets up the suspense with expert skill, sustaining an edge-of-your-seat tension for much of the running time.

Sean (Robert Sheehan, Genius: Picasso) is a broke college-age aspiring artist working as a valet at a fancy restaurant in Portland, Oregon, but his primary source of income is a lucrative side-gig: using the GPSs in the cars he valet parks to rob rich customers’ houses while they’re eating dinner. But when he breaks into the home of millionaire businessman (and abrasive, entitled prick) Cale Erendreich (Tennant) he finds much more than he bargained for: he finds all the signs that Erendreich is a serial killer, including a young woman chained to a chair, in line to be his next victim. When the cops predictably won't take the word of a young petty thief over a respectable businessman, Sean sets out to rescue the woman and expose her would-be killer himself... but that means putting himself in the crosshairs of Erendreich's vindictive and very well-funded fury. 

After the minimum necessary runtime required to establish Sean as a sympathetic and sensitive guy despite his criminal activities, Bad Samaritan gets right down to business with the suspense. It gets tense almost immediately, even before the serial-killer plot is revealed, thanks to the high-risk nature of Sean and his friend/accomplice's extremely bold robbery scheme, and that tension almost never lets up for the duration of the runtime. Director Devlin keeps us very conscious of the passing of time as Sean's robbery of the house is cross-cut with the ticking clock of Cale eating his dinner, skillfully pushing us closer to the edge of our seat. Then when Sean discovers the imprisoned woman and the truth about the man he is robbing, Devlin slams the film into high gear and basically never gives us a break. It is a suspense-thriller in the truest sense of the term.

In addition to the taut pacing, the key to much of the suspense is the ferocity and unpredictability of the script's villain. Cale Erendreich is a sociopath of great cunning, wild mood-swings, and seemingly-infinite resources. With a financial fortune to fund his sadistic activities, we quickly get the sense that he can pretty much do whatever he wants and reasonably believe he can get away with it – and he's crazy enough to want to do just that. This isn't a slasher movie where he's simply out to kill Sean, but a game of cat and mouse in which the psycho clearly derives great pleasure from toying with his prey. The film finds some genuinely surprising (though admittedly, some not-so-surprising) ways for him to do this, and the tension and pacing crafts each build-up and sprung trap with confidence. The two central performances handle each side of this dynamic very well: Sheehan nails the desperate presence of the mouse who knows he's way out of his depth against a predator who can do this in his sleep, while Tennant's coldly calculating evil and sudden outbursts of violence are as genuinely creepy as they were on Jessica Jones. He plays an outstanding villain with scary confidence, and this is totally his show.

Unfortunately, the script is not as strong as either the acting or the direction. It isn't a bad script; it just isn't quite as smart as it would like to be, and not nearly as smart as its villain. It sometimes leans too heavily on two well-worn thriller tropes: the improbably omniscient villain, who is always a step ahead even when it doesn't quite make sense that he would be, and the improbably stupid cops, who refuse to listen to or believe the main character well past the point when they should (they seem to have been mentored by Die Hard's Chief Dwayne T. Robinson). The same goes for some of the other supporting characters, who probably could help Sean's predicament if they just listened to him when they instead refuse to for various, sometimes contrived reasons. 

There are also a few moments when, despite being an apparently very successful criminal, Sean does some very sloppy or stupid things that sets him up for trouble later, when it's hard to believe that he could do such things and have not yet been caught. But with just a few exceptions, these are things that only bothered me momentarily, or only bothered me in hindsight when thinking back on the film a bit more logically. In the moment, the edge-of-your-seat suspense and Tennant's intense performance stopped me from being too distracted, as I was thoroughly in the movie's spell. It would be nice if it was a smarter film as well as a viscerally effective one, but at least it excels in one of those areas more than well enough to make up for its deficiencies in the other.

The script doesn't work much with subtext or metaphor, but one can't help but notice a few not-fully-explored elements that make it quite clearly a thriller for the Trump era. Most obviously, in 2018, one can't help but think of the Trumps when we meet a villain who is a spoiled and egocentric, rich-from-birth son of a prominent business family whose life has taught him that if you have enough money, you can get away with any crime consequence-free, including murder (though admittedly Cale's serial-killing is done a bit more slyly than shooting someone in the middle of 5th Avenue). At one point, Erendreich even directly quotes George W. Bush, which surely reveals something of the worldview he comes from. 

Then there's the detail that our protagonist is an (Irish) immigrant who is at one point threatened with deportation if he doesn't back off, and his best friend and accomplice is a Mexican-American who is similarly threatened with racially-biased violence. Not that the film really does anything with these details thematically, but that these were the logical attributes for the cat and the mice in a modern thriller scenario is very telling of the era we live in. Even leaving aside the similarity between Cale and an Eric Trump or Don Jr, it is quite appropriate to the zeitgeist of our times that the story's ultimate villain is a rich white misogynist trading heavily on his privilege, and it makes him quite a satisfying monster to root against.

All in all, Bad Samaritan is a solid thriller, with high-quality tension and performances that mange to outweigh the shortcomings of its script. Of course, one could argue that this just makes those script weaknesses all the more unfortunate, as this is a good film that could have risen to the status of a great film if the writing was as strong as everything else. But when you're watching it, you will be too busy feeling tense to be bothered much, until you give it some logical scrutiny later. I would put this in a category with thrillers like Wes Craven's Red Eye and Adam Wingard's The Guest that script-wise aren't quite as smart as they'd like to be, or as they could have been, but are nonetheless very effective, very good at what they do, and very much worth recommending as a result. Not entirely what The Doctor ordered, but not too far off the mark either.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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