Review: Take (A-)

TakeSaul sits in chains and stares blankly at the sterile prison walls around him as the film opens.  He is on death row and about to be executed.

Ana stares blankly at the featureless desert outside her car as she travels across the state to witness his execution.  She has a personal connection with Saul’s crimes, and can only hope for a bit of closure.

Take, released in 2007, centers around the two and only two times Saul and Ana meet face-to-face, and how they deal with the baggage from those occasions.  Through a non-chronological narrative, Take alternates between the present day (Saul’s execution) and the past (the day that put Saul on death row in the first place).

Heavy subject matter, especially for a first time writer / director.  However, the results are impressive.  Take, written and directed by Charles Oliver and starring Minnie Driver (Tarzan, Good Will Hunting) and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker, Thor, and the upcoming Avengers movie) was released in 2007 (with a screening at the LDS Film Festival in 2008) and marks Oliver as someone to watch in the future.

In line with its brutally simple title, Take is short and to the point, without any extraneous subplots.   Its sole focus is the state of mind of both characters, and the events that led to their meeting.   The film will be a hard-sell to audiences;  most viewers will be turned off by the subject matter (and/or the prevalent, almost suffocatingly morose tone and complete lack of humorous elements to lighten the mood, even momentarily) even though the ending provides some rays of hope and optimism with a positive message.

As writer / director, Oliver makes some bold decisions.   Starting a film with the main character on death row where his guilt is not in question and the nature of his crimes can be deduced fairly quickly reveals a number of plot points from the beginning, removing the potential for surprises when the flashback scenes show what we already knew.

Additionally, a fractured narrative that jumps constantly back and forth in time risks confusing and alienating viewers who don’t know what’s happening when.  (Most directors who rely on such narrative tricks are basically admitting their story wouldn’t be interesting if conveyed in chronological order.)

Oliver knows what he is doing, though.  He’s not creating a “thriller” — like where an innocent man is on death row and the hero(ine) has to find the “real killer” before it is too late — but rather a psychological study on crime and forgiveness.  The non-linear narrative is well structured such that there’s little confusion when sequences are taking place.    And revealing much of what is going to happen later in the film from the beginning actually helps his cause here, as viewers are struck with a sense of desperate inevitability (even as some of the details remain unknown until the end).

Most astonishingly, even though the film is seemingly designed to hold no surprises from beginning to end, Oliver finds a way to create some anyway.  A conversation at the end allows the audience to re-evaluate everything that has come before — not in a cheesy “surprise twist” sort of way (“Can you believe it?  Ana was [the killer]/[a ghost] this entire time!”) but something more subtle, which allows viewers greater insight into the psychology of both characters and some reinterpretation of minor details that seemed extraneous at the time.  This last revelation is technically unnecessary — the film stands alone without it — but completely justifies Oliver’s “randomness” in flipping between past and present arbitrarily, showing he has a higher purpose in mind.

Oliver’s writing is strong enough in the subtle elements that it’s almost a disappointment when he goes for something obvious.  (Why is Ana lugging around a big trailer on her car just to visit a prison?  Oh.  It’s a metaphor.)

There are no LDS elements in Take, although the theme and content of the film can easily be linked to gospel principles.  (D&C 64:9-10, for example)  In terms of  “commandments” isn’t forgiving others by far one of the most difficult to actually follow?  Especially for terrible things that tear at the soul and which can never be undone?  (“When I wake up every morning,” says Ana, “I don’t see my husband, I don’t see my son, I see *him* [Saul]“)

However, Take makes clear that the necessity for forgiveness is for the victim’s benefit, not the perpetrator’s.  Regardless of Saul’s fate, Ana needs to find a way to move on somehow, and having one last opportunity to face Saul proves to be vital to both of them.

A brief discussion between Saul and a prison minister raises some interesting theological issues.  The minister shares scriptures about God’s love for everyone, even Saul, in the hope of bringing him some comfort before he dies.  Saul bristles at the notion, however, that God has a “plan” for him.  (“God’s ‘plan’?  How does that work?  I was born alone, I’m going to die alone, and everything in between was my choice.”)  Indeed, the notion that Saul was merely following a divine course appointed to him from above would make God ultimately responsible for Ana’s tragedy, right?  It’s one thing to argue that God allows bad things to happen, another to say He dictates them…

Take is not necessarily pro- or anti-death penalty — I suspect advocates from both sides will read what they want to from the film — but does close with a note about Restorative Justice, a philosophical focus on repairing the harm caused by crime by helping criminals and victims face off in communicative (rather than confrontational) settings.  Ana does this in the film, and while their conversation is idealized in certain ways, it represents a turning point for both individuals, with both deriving a necessary benefit from it.

Take is rated R for one (1) scene of violence and blood, although that scene is actually less intense than other scenes that imply more than they show.  The film deserves its R-rating (and is not for kids), but no more than that — it is not gratuitous or fundamentally immoral.  The higher rating along with the tough theme and lack of a crowd-friendly plot will likely mean Take will not find a large audience, but that should not detract from Charles Oliver’s strong debut.

Final Grade:  A-

Other Comments:

(1)  There’s an interesting dichotomy between the past scenes where Saul thinks it is the last day of his life, and the present scenes where he knows it is the last day of his life.  The obvious thought is:  “Was it worth it?”  Would he (let alone everyone else) have been better off just accepting his fate the first day without struggling to stay alive at the expense of others?

(2) I didn’t attend the LDS Film Festival in 2008 where Take first screened, but the 2011 festival rejected a film (The Maze) that received an R rating due to the Scera theater policies.  I don’t know if that means an edited version of Take was shown, or if policies had changed in the meantime.  This just shows the difficulty of judging movies based purely on a rating — removing the scene with blood from Take does not actually make it “PG-rated”.