Like Lee Chang-dong‘s 2007 “Secret Sunshine,” Charles Oliver‘s debut feature “Take” deals with the awkward moral quandaries of infanticide and the subsequent, touchy relations between a killer and his victim’s mother. That Lee’s film remains unreleased in this country is no doubt due in part to the fact that his film, unlike Oliver’s, did not star Minnie Driver (although it did win an award at Cannes for its actress, Jeon Do-yeon). But in spite of this star pedigree, Oliver’s film manages to grapple with some knotty questions about justice, even if it is not quite as bold or ironic as Lee’s.
Driver stars as Ana, whom we eventually learn (after some chronological jerkiness) is the bereaved mother of Jesse, murdered some years earlier by Saul, played by Jeremy Renner (probably best known for his portrayal of another murderer, in 2002’s “Dahmer“). Crosscutting between the stories of Ana and Saul, past and present, the film tracks the causes of Jesse’s murder at length before we witness it, and in this way the film forces our identification with both characters — victim and criminal — simultaneously. Even as we follow Ana, in her pilgrimage to the state penitentiary to watch the “monster” Saul’s execution, we also follow Saul down an endless series of death-row hallways, as he mulls over the dreary life and increasingly brutal set of circumstances that led him, somehow, to kill Ana’s son.
“Take” is a confident debut film for Oliver, proficiently made and refreshingly subdued in style. Most of the film is shot with a kind of Janusz Kaminski-esque colorlessness that reminds us of nothing so much as the fluorescence of death row, where Saul awaits his fate. And while the film leaps back and forth in its chronology, it resists being overly flashy and never causes one to lose the story’s thread. This could be somewhat inadvertent — the film seems to want to surprise the audience with a few narrative twists and turns, but none of them are terribly unexpected. Instead the film is bound together by its central performances, especially Renner’s, which quietly and more or less completely wins the viewer’s sympathy, even without the wailing and waterworks of Sean Penn’s similar turn in “Dead Man Walking.” “I was born alone and today I’m going to die alone. And everything in the middle was my choice,” he tells his priest, who is trying to convince him that his fate is part of “God’s Plan.”
The film persistently invokes the Hand of Fate — near misses, crossed paths, a deck of cards, Saul’s failed career as a gambler — but never tips the scales to deus ex machina plotting or phony coincidences. Instead, Oliver crafts a satisfying double narrative that eventually coheres thanks to credibility and a sense of the inevitable. When Ana and Saul’s respective worlds finally collide at the register of a supermarket, the film delivers a sharp gut-blow, a nerve-wracking, even slightly nauseating scene in which none of the characters do the right thing or quite earn our sympathy. Saul’s mistakes are more or less assumed from the beginning, but even Driver’s Ana, whose character is nominally the victim of the story, reveals a subtle, but no less compromising, weakness of character. Understated (or perhaps even unintentional) as this may be, it’s nonetheless a fairly bold choice for an actress not known for risking her charm. But the doubts the film raises about the correlative natures of victimhood and villainy suggest that just as so-called “monsters” are worthy of sympathy, so too are their victims not always above reproach.