It’s difficult to discuss “The Samaritan” without revealing the noted plot turn nearly halfway through, but consider this an attempt. The Canadian thriller, currently available on VOD, concerns an ex-con named Foley. Foley’s lost twenty five years in prison after murdering his partner, a decision borne out of Foley regretfully picking his own poison in a life-or-death situation. Living with the memory of killing his close associate and the idea that he essentally gave up a quarter of a century to live, Foley is unstuck in time, visiting his old stomping grounds the way the guilty frequent graveyards.
Despite a request to ignore any former associates and a desire to avoid unlawful situations, Foley is approached by the shifty Ethan. With a jacket full of drugs, a pocket flush with cash, and a smooth, inky pompadour, Ethan weasels his way into a conversation with Foley, coyly suggesting he knows all about Foley’s life. When Foley rebuffs Ethan, the wannabe smoothly pulls out his trump card: Foley murdered his father.
Foley’s desire for self-preservation is overwhelmed by his desire to make amends, but when Ethan’s olive branch becomes a “job” offer, Foley bails. Perhaps it was Ethan’s overly-pushy coked-up obnoxiousness. Maybe it was Ethan’s thinly-veiled threats. Or it could have been Ethan having a conversation with a salty crime boss named Xavier (Tom Wilkinson) as the Hannibal Lecter-voiced criminal murders someone with a broken wine bottle. In retrospect, it’s probably a mixture of all three.
Ethan talks tough, but Foley holds his head high, retreating to a life of respectable odd-jobs. Instead of pulling grifts, he becomes a homebody with an alluring young girl nursing a serious drug addiction, a reclamation project that gives Foley a chance to rebuild his broken life. But the getaway is never clean, and soon Foley finds his hands stained with blood, at the mercy of a con referred to as The Samaritan.
There’s a certain audaciousness to what we learn about Foley, and what Foley learns about himself, when the squirrely Ethan tries to put the screws in him. Without full disclosure, the revelation is borrowed, almost down to the last detail, from one of the most famous twists in recent movie history. It’s distracting considering how little screenwriters Elan Mastal and David Weaver (also the director) add very little to the poetic devastation of such information, instead thriving on the icky, upsetting implications of such a development.
Much of whatever weight comes from the film’s second half comes from the Canadian actor Luke Kirby. Much of what made Kirby so eccentric and off-putting in upcoming infidelity drama “Take This Waltz” is in full effect as Ethan. When this lowlife prepares to speak, he shapes his lips into an “O” formation, as if he’s holding back what he’s trying to say both because he’s weighing a few options, and because he’s clearly unsure about the right type of phrasing. All sideways grins and effeminate, theatrical poses, Ethan is the kind of hoodlum that stays five steps ahead of his opponent, when he thinks its ten.
His manic, unpredictable energy carries the film as Samuel L. Jackson contributes a deadening, uncertain performance as Foley. When not doing outsized, Jackson can be a dull presence as an actor, and while he deserves credit for playing himself in flashbacks, you’re never really sure what drove young Foley, and old Foley is only defined by his reactive nature. A whole lot happens to this hapless ex-con, and while Foley radiates a humorless, old-fashioned intelligence, his character is written to be both a skilled tough guy and a kind-hearted patsy. Sadly, Jackson can’t seem to find the middle ground, reducing “The Samaritan” from a servicable thriller into a Canadian cheapie that rips off a major contemporary classic. [C]