Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Strange Case of "Unthinkable"

At the beginning of last year, I wrote up a blog post about the career of British actor Michael Sheen, and found a listing for an upcoming thriller called "Unthinkable," where he plays an American-born Muslim terrorist. The cast featured Samuel L Jackson and Carrie-Anne Moss as the leads, and there were several other familiar actors in the mix like Brandon Routh and Stephen Root, so I mentally filed it away as a movie I ought to keep an eye out for. I'd assumed at the time that it would be released later in the year.

So imagine my surprise when it popped up among the new Netflix Instant Watch titles this week. I hadn't heard anything about a theatrical release and I'm pretty good about keeping tabs on those through reviews and theater listings. A little digging revealed that it had been dumped direct-to-DVD back in June, because its original distributor, Senator Entertainment US, folded. The interesting thing is that it attracted a lot of attention over the summer because a copy of "Unthinkable" was leaked and hit the web a few weeks before it had its DVD release, and became something of an online cult hit thanks to Internet piracy. Patrick Goldstein has all the details here.

I watched "Unthinkable" via Netflix, and it's immediately apparent why nobody else picked this up for release. It's a highly provocative movie that tackles the recent debate on extreme interrogation methods. The movie presents a nightmare scenario where Michael Sheen's terrorist character has set up nuclear bombs in three major cities, and Samuel L Jackson is the mysterious interrogator, "H," determined to get the locations out of him by any means necessary. Carrie-Anne Moss, who we don't see enough of these days, plays the FBI Agent who acts as the good cop to Jackson's bad cop and provides the film with its moral center. As time grows short, H's tactics become more extreme, and the audience is left with a simple question: how far is too far in the name of fighting terrorism?

"Unthinkable" is a good thriller, very entertaining and full of interesting moral conundrums that various corners of the Internet have been hotly debating. It has a more balanced approach to its themes and issues than most, which I appreciated. All three of the leads are well cast and a lot of fun to watch. This is easily the best direct-to-video feature I've ever seen, far better than many of last year's films that were released theatrically However, there's a little too much dramatic license and a multiplicity of absurd hairpin plot twists that keep the movie from being any kind of serious prestige pic. The graphic torture scenes are also just gratuitous enough that I couldn't quite suspend my disbelief the whole way through. The thematic content almost certainly scared off other distributors who might have picked up "Unthinkable" after Senator went bust. The version I saw on Netflix is missing the original ending, which is darker and less ambiguous about the outcome of the interrogation.

However, considering how strong the response has been to the film, I'm sure "Unthinkable" would have done decent business if it had found its way to theaters and the benefit of some decent marketing. The political pundits would have had a field day with it, and probably dredged up the whole Iraq War debate again. If it had managed to secure a limited run or even a premium cable premiere, then it might have gotten enough media attention to ping on the radar of its intended audience. As it stands, "Unthinkable" is ineligible for any major film awards and would have been doomed to obscurity if the internet pirates hadn't pounced. Goldstein's column has an interview with one of the film's producers, Cotty Chubb, who was grateful for the good press, but lamented that they don't know how to monetize the film's popularity. Six months later, it's still hard to say if the attention had any positive effect on the sale of "Unthinkable" DVDs and Blu-Rays despite its higher profile.

The "Unthinkable" situation is a good one to pick apart, because with studios still jumpy and film buyers getting more risk-averse, this is a situation we can expect to repeat itself in the future. There are a lot of good films out there that fall through the cracks, and it'll be interesting to see if the Internet is capable of picking up the slack. We know that internet pirates can be a destructive force - see "The Hurt Locker" - or surprisingly benign - see "Wolverine." But can they be a force for good?

We'll see.

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