Saturday, November 13, 2010

THE VISITORS (1972) - Elia Kazan

A little known and lesser seen late career Elia Kazan film reportedly based on the same Vietnam War incident that inspired DePalma's Casualties of War, The Visitors is a master's study in effective slow-boil tension building and atrocious camera placement.

James Woods (in his first feature) plays a Vietnam vet returned home to snowy Connecticut to live with his attractive common law wife, their young baby and her old WWII vet of a dad who bangs out war novels in the backyard shed when he's not draining bottles of scotch. This idyllic life is soon cut to shreds when two old war buddies (Steve Railsback and Chico Martinez) show up at his front door after two-year stint in the stockade thanks to Woods' court martial confession that put them there, an incident concerning the rape-murder of a Vietnamese woman during the war.

As you may guess, Woods' old army pals have more than catching-up and tossing the old pigskin around in mind. But Kazan (with his son as screenwriter) keeps the m.o. of their visit disturbingly vague for as much as his brief 88 minute run-time will allow, ratcheting up the paranoia and discomfort level ala Peckinpah's Straw Dogs or Haneke's Funny Games.

Alas, The Visitors isn't nearly as effective as either of those grand provocateurs. Much of this has to do with the aforementioned camera placement that gives the proceedings a "filmed theatre" aspect. A more visual filmmaker (maybe Polanski) could have turned the claustrophobia and muted color palette to his advantage. But, his being Kazan, the acting is top-notch across the board. I love the The Stunt Man, I've never been a huge Steve Railsback fan. But here Kazan uses his dead-behind-the-eyes good old boy gaze to startling effect, so much so that he reminded me of a young Tommy Lee Jones. I can see why they cast him as Manson in Helter Skelter a few years later. This is the kind of dude you don't want casting his peepers on your one year old son through the bars of his play pen. Not to mention, your common law wife.

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