Denzel Washington in Safe House, coming of age in Pariah

by Mark Burger

The title Safe House , is ironicallyand intentionally inaccurate, as thehouse in question is definitely anythingbut safe — as low-level CIA agent MattWeston (Ryan Reynolds) is about todiscover.

Matt soon rues his eagerness for moreexcitement when former CIA operativeTobin Frost (Denzel Washington), whowent rogue a decade ago, suddenly turnsup at his doorstep at one of the agency’ssafe houses in South Africa. Frost weathers a bit of torture at thehands of Matt’s colleagues, but soon enough a bunch of guntotinggoons come knocking… and shooting …Thrown together by these circumstances — which are hardlysurprising for any aficionado of the espionage or action genre —Frost and Matt form an uneasy, tenuous alliance as they barrelthrough Johannesburg, Cape Town and nearby environs, pursuedby the aforementioned gun-toting goons and wreaking havocwherever they go.

Under the direction of Daniel Espinosa, tackling his firstbig-budget assignment, Safe House tends to play it too safe byplaying to formula and convention. There are the obligatory andreasonably well-handled car chases, shoot-outs, fistfights andexplosions, yet for all the twists and turns in David Guggenheim’sscreenplay, few surprise.

Throughout most of the film,Frost routinely dominates and outfoxes his pursuers — and Matt,for that matter — and Washington (also an executive producer)effortlessly dominates the proceedings.When the story’s emphasis isn’t on Frost — and the film’semphasis not on Washington — Safe House loses traction.Nora Arnezeder plays Matt’s French girlfriend, but asidefrom providing Reynolds with an onscreenlove interest, the character is completely superfluous.

Time spent with her is time wasted.Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and BrendanGleeson punch the clock in routine assignmentsas CIA honchos keeping tabs on thingsfrom headquarters, while Liam Cunningham,Robert Patrick and Ruben Blades are on andoff(ed) so quickly that they barely make animpression.

There is, of course, the obligatorytraitor in the midst, and it should be obviousearly on who that turncoat is.In the end, Safe House is just another slick‘n’ shallow shoot-’em-up, elevated slightly(and expectedly) by Washington’s charismaticpresence.

It’s all very competent and mostlyuninspired.

Pariah , which opens Friday, marksthe well-intentioned, well-acted feature debutof writer/director Dee Rees, who exhibitsa keen eye for time, place and character —although not always simultaneously. Nevertheless,Rees’ obvious talent and ambition willlikely yield bigger and better things for her.The same is true of leading lady AdeperoOduye, in her most significant role in a featurefilm to date.

She and Rees previously collaboratedon the short film that Pariah is based on,so there’s a definite familiarity with the pivotalcharacter of Alike (pronounced “Ah-lee-keh”),a typical New York teenager who’s both brightand independent — the latter trait a result ofher sexual preference. Alike is gay, but hasn’treally come out — at least not “officially”. Shehas lesbian friends, but attempts to keep thataspect of her life separate from her life at home.

Her parents (Charles Parnell and Kim Wayans) haveadopted something of a “don’t-ask, don’t-tell” policy, essentiallyletting Alike go her own way — although Momwould rather she not spend so much time with Laura(Pernell Walker), who’s a little too “butch” for her liking.She’d rather Alike get to know another neighbor, Bina(Aasha Davis), completely (and rather amusingly) unawarethat Bina is herself gay.

The two girls are initially, understandably wary of eachother, but as they get to know each other it becomes clear thattheir relationship will be the catalyst for Alike to finally stophiding (from herself, mostly) and assert herself.

This is whoshe is, this is what she is, and there’s nothing anybody can doabout it. Nor should they. If they can’t deal with it, that’s theirproblem — not Alike’s.Some observers have compared Pariah to Precious(2009), given its urban setting, but it’s more reminiscentof the recent Albert Nobbs in that the principal charactermust confront — and embrace — her own identity in orderto move forward with her life.

Pariah doesn’t quite hit itsdramatic stride until very late in the game, but its sincerityand energy are unmistakable.

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