Chris Rock once lamented Jim Carrey’s attempts at drama, pointing out Hollywood has plenty of actors who can do the Tom Hanks roles, but only one who can do Ace Ventura–and I agreed with him. Seeing John C. Reilly in one of last actor roles, I finally realized Rock’s wrong, at least somewhat. Yes, there are other actors for the Tom Hanks roles… but there aren’t for the John C. Reilly roles. Criminal is one of Reilly’s most dynamic performances, maybe because the role gives him more to do–and Reilly’s had some amazing parts–than ever before.
Lots of Reilly’s performance is monologue, as he explains the con man trade to protégé Diego Luna. These sequences given Reilly the opportunity to shock, yet endear himself to the viewer. The later scenes, when Reilly thinks and feels… those are his best moments in Criminal, since he’s playing a despicable person who discovers it doesn’t feel good to be despicable.
Being a con movie, Criminal has a big surprise at the end. I wasn’t actually expecting it at the beginning, simply because Criminal‘s got a weird narrative format. It’s a continuous present action–not real-time, but it takes place over about twenty hours. The format allows for the film to distract the viewer from examining it as a con movie, having to follow certain rules. After a while, it becomes clear there’s going to be some twist at the end. Then, in the denouement, it goes through three periods (the final being the actual revelation). By generalizing, I can avoid spoilers (I hope). The first period is a beautifully paced three minutes–the film only runs ninety minutes and it’s very tight–when it’s entirely possible, while there’s obviously a twist, the viewer might never find out what it’s going to be. Then is the period where Criminal, for about ninety seconds, hints it might never have been a con movie, but a young man becoming an adult movie, also rather strange. Both these periods suggest Criminal as an innovative, singular entry into the genre. Then the actual conclusion. It’s a good conclusion, maybe not as cool as the second period… but it’s solid.
Besides Reilly, the cast is excellent. Luna is good, especially given how he’s responsible for keeping the audience interested in the narrative. Peter Mullan is great (little shock there). I was surprised by Jonathan Tucker’s fine performance, given he’s usually unimpressive. Maggie Gyllenhaal, however, is only okay. She has some fine moments–in terms of craftsmanship–but her character is in the story too much to be so poorly drawn.
Gregory Jacobs mostly works as co-writer Steven Soderbergh’s assistant director and it shows a little. There’s a minor Out of Sight reference and Jacobs masterfully applies some of Soderbergh’s vérité techniques to the film while still making it his own. Jacobs never lets Reilly run the show, which is a major achievement, given Reilly’s fantastic, mesmerizing acting.
Directed by Gregory Jacobs; screenplay by Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh, based on a film by Fabián Bielinsky; director of photography, Chris Menges; edited by Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise; music by Alex Wurman; production designer, Philip Messina; produced by Jacobs, George Clooney and Soderbergh; released by Warner Independent Pictures.
Starring John C. Reilly (Richard Gaddis), Diego Luna (Rodrigo), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Valerie), Peter Mullan (William Hannigan), Zitto Kazann (Ochoa) and Jonathan Tucker (Michael).