“See you soon, John.”
The latest in the “let’s trek off to space for several decades” genre comes out this week in the form of writer/director Neil Burger’s Voyagers. The story of a group of teenagers raised to have their emotions entirely controlled by another force looks to be an interesting experiment which quickly seems like it could evolve into a Lord of the Flies type of situation. At least it would were it not for the presence of Colin Farrell as the sole adult in charge.
It’s always interesting to note when Farrell takes on a supporting role in a project. While he’s proven himself time and time again as a capable leading man who is also able to stand out in an ensemble piece, it isn’t often when he willingly takes on a project which has him standing on the sidelines. One of the last times the actor took on such a role, the move resulted in one of his more fascinating turns- as a serial killer taunting Anthony Hopkins in the little-seen thriller Solace.
When a string of unusual murders seem to have been committed by the same unknown killer, FBI agents Katherine Cowles (Abbie Cornish) and Joe Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) recruit a psychic named John Clancy (Hopkins) for help. Soon, John deduces that each of the victims was suffering from a terminal illness which the killer uses as an excuse for murdering them. Eventually, the killer is identified as Charles Ambrose (Farrell), who like John, also possesses psychic abilities, which allows him to continuously stay one step ahead.
What sets Solace apart almost instantly is the fact that it’s a cat and mouse chase where both of the participants happen to enjoy special gifts. The film uses this hook cleverly throughout the proceedings, but never once does it feel overdone. There’s the standard device of having John announce what he’s seeing when he enters a room to both the shock and skepticism of the agents inside, providing Hopkins with some nice acting moments. But having the immediate and distant futures play out in front of our eyes the instant they hit John’s consciousness never fails to be the kind of exciting mini-mind trip the filmmakers hoped it would be. Solace is loaded with visual flourishes, particularly in the scenes leading up to each victim’s death, which John is able to reconstruct. Just as satisfying is the moment near the movie’s end when all action stops on on a station subway as time literally stands still, which culminates in a final shootout with bullets flying in slow motion. But the angle of having a psychic chasing another psychic really comes alive in the third act with Charles beckoning and guiding John through his real time thoughts, taking the cat and mouse setup to a new and highly enticing level.
In the midst of a good psychic trying to take down a bad psychic, Solace eventually pauses the action and the chasing by posing the question: Are the acts Charles is committing murder, or are they a form of mercy killing? While one of his victims is found to have had an inoperable brain tumor, another is shown to have been on their way to having AIDS. Since Charles only sets his sights on people whose lives will be taken from them in ways he himself finds horrific, he uses the logic of killing them in order to spare each and every one from a reality and a death they know is coming. Charles’ preferred method of killing is an ice pick to the back of the head, allowing his victims to, as he describes it: “die with some dignity.” What makes Charles such an intriguing killer is the pragmatic view he takes towards his acts. “I have no interest in playing God,” he tells John at one point. “As far as his work is concerned, I’m not impressed.” At the same time, Charles is driven by some maniacal pull he cannot explain, but which unquestionably makes him a serial killer. “I don’t enjoy the work I do. It’s not a fetish,” he states. “Sometimes the greatest acts of love are the hardest acts to commit.”
Even though Solace is a pure genre piece through and through, no one in the cast is sleepwalking in it. Cornish and Morgan are fully believable as flesh and blood FBI agents. Both actors tap into the determined mentality required for their roles, while also enjoying moments of fragility when the scene feels right. As the film’s lead, Hopkins digs into the ghosts of his character’s past and avoids any large theatrics during any scene requiring his character to have visions, beautifully grounding what could have otherwise been a purely showy role. Likewise, Farrell doesn’t go large, but rather quiet, making Charles all the more chilling and menacing by the calm way he presents himself and especially in the unshakeable conviction behind his words.
Solace was originally conceived as a sequel to David Fincher’s Se7en. The initial idea was that following the events from that film, Morgan Freeman’s character had developed psychic abilities and was recruited by the FBI to help them solve the murders through the use of his newfound gifts. Although many fans had been clamoring for a sequel, for whatever reason, the idea was scrapped. Maybe it’s for the best since Solace seems to work as a standalone project on virtually every level, from its acting to its visuals. It’s not the kind of flawless and innovative crime procedural thriller that Se7en was by any means. Still, as a compelling throwback that knows how to use its novelty in a wise and clever way, Solace more than works.