What’s not to love about Safe House? I mean the cast is dynamite. You have veteran superstars like Denzel Washington, Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson. Then you have a very capable young actor in Ryan Reynolds rounding out the ensemble cast. It’s a story where Denzel gets to kick a lot of bad guy butt, so that’s a huge plus. So, why is Safe House only so, so? Because you can’t see anything that’s going on.
That’s right, director Daniel Espinosa films Safe House like it’s the fourth Bourne film. The camera never stays still. The action scenes are some of the most chaotic, unintelligible action scenes I’ve ever witnessed. It was like watching Quantum of Solace all over again.
The mistake here is that Espinosa, like so many other filmmakers, thinks the shaky-cam adds realism to their movie. It doesn’t. The human eye doesn’t bob and weave like a prize fighter. We have components in our brain that keep our vision from bouncing all over the place. That’s why when we watch a movie where the camera swings wildly around during the action we feel like we need a Dramamine just to get through all three acts.
The movie revolves around a story of espionage. It’s a cloak-and-dagger spy story about a spy who has long since gone rogue. That spy’s name is Tobin Frost (Washington). Frost is one of The Company’s most wanted fugitives. He’s lived the past decade abroad, doing whatever ex-spies do. Frost has come into possession of a file that could be very damaging to many top-ranking officials around the world, and he’s willing to sell it to the highest bidder. He gets caught at an American embassy in South Africa though, and he’s quickly transported to the safe house where Matt Weston (Reynolds) is the “housekeeper.” Recruited from Yale, but the CIA, Weston has been assigned as a safe house keeper. Essentially he waits around, until someone shows up with a person they need to interrogate.
The movie turns into your standard fleeing suspect movie. Frost escapes and its Weston’s duty to bring him back. Even though the story is simple enough, the actors here should be able to rise above it. The trouble is that the shaky-cam aesthetic really undermines the performances from the seasoned actors involved. Washington is one of Hollywood’s premiere facial expression experts. You never really know exactly how important subtle facial expressions are in a movie until you can’t see them because the camera is bouncing around so much. I wanted to yell at Espinosa, “You have phenomenal actors in your movie. Let me see them do their stuff!”
Safe House is a frustrating movie to watch, because watching it is almost impossible given the way it was filmed and edited. It’s like visual vomit thrown up on the screen. And the worst part is that the story, the script and the acting are all pretty good, but when you can’t see what’s going on what’s the point?