Absorbing, well-acted, moody adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel, previously filmed by Claude Chabrol as one of his less well-received works, now serving as the feature debut for director Jamie Thraves. Robert Forrester (Paddy Considine) is a depressed, divorcing corporate man who moves out of
From there on the narrative only winds further and further into excruciating circumstances where Robert falls under suspicion of being a killer and general creep, and everything he touches seems to shrivel and die. Robert suffers such a run of punishments for his minor transgressions that it’s impossible not to empathise with him, even if he’s not an especially worthy exemplar of humanity, and yet that’s part of the game. Considine is at home in such a role, his utterly everyday face and manner riven with increasing, physically and spiritually manifest discomfort, suggesting the wormier aspects of his character with a fearless lack of vanity. Robert suffers blow after blow because something about him attracts the pity of the doomed and the fury of the spurned, and his efforts to slip quietly out of his old life and subsist on illusions of perfection prove fruitless and, indeed, utterly destructive, for his evasions, his illusions, his inability to take a stand or tendency to take them at the wrong time, finally consume him. Jenny, for her part, is a troubled young woman in spite of her picture postcard home life, moving according to perceived signs and symbols in her life. Where Robert feels at the mercy of malevolent chance, Jenny sees herself at the mercy of malevolent fate.
Being based on first-rate material helps The Cry of the Owl a lot, for nobody wrote perverse psychological mystery better than Highsmith, but the film’s formal elements are strong, particularly the excellent performances of Considine and Stiles as Robert's delusional, self-destructive muse. Dhavernas is also eye-catching, in portraying an ambiguous character (Highsmith was often particularly unforgiving to her own sex), her Nickie projecting feline humour and attractiveness imbued with something altogether despicable in her blithely cruel wit and narcissism, whether or not her desire to keep Robert in her clutches suggests latent concern and remnant affection for Robert or deep-smouldering determination to revenge herself upon him for his having committed the crime of disappointing her.
Like many of Highsmith stories it’s filled with unexpected, bizarre twists of circumstance and motivation that risk absurdity, but stay compelling in portraying how bad luck can bring people together in a perfect mesh of tangled intentions and dark impulses. The characters are mysteries to each-other and, indeed, to themselves, and just when the whirlpool of bleakness seems exhausted, there’s still a final trap to be sprung on Robert as the two halves of his life come together and leave him in limbo. Thraves is a Briton who made his name with music videos, unlike many who learn their craft that way he resists pizzazz, preferring instead a steady, incipiently menacing tone. Perhaps, indeed, a touch too muted, for there’s little about Thraves’ style that distinguishes it firmly from made-for-TV mystery fodder, and it’s rather too obviously shot on the cheap in