There's a psychological phenomenon -- of which the clinical name escapes me at the moment -- where an individual, no matter how strong their belief in something, eventually begins to question that if everyone else around them acts completely positive that said belief is not true. I'm not talking about religious or political beliefs that can be so ingrained that nothing can break them, but rather otherwise everyday events to which one might not otherwise pay any attention.
For instance, studies have shown that if a person passes through a waiting room wearing a blue shirt and all but one witness states it was red, any lone dissenter will eventually transfer their questioning of the others' sanity to that of their own. It's a well-documented syndrome and it's why police always interview witnesses to crimes or other events separately rather than in groups.
It also makes for fun fiction if handled just right, particularly if the consumer of such artistic works is in the dark regarding the truth and thus must go along with the protagonist on their mentally anguishing journey to discovering what really happened. Such is the goal in "Flightplan," the latest thriller set in an airliner (the other recent one being "Red Eye" where there was no doubt what was occurring).
As directed by Robert Schwentke ("The Family Jewels," "Tattoo") from a script by Peter A. Dowling (making his debut) and Billy Ray ("Suspect Zero," "Shattered Glass"), the film immediately sets forth to confuse the viewer. We see Kyle -- terrifically played by the always reliable Jodie Foster ("Contact," "The Silence of the Lambs") -- sitting in a subway station alone, looking shell-shocked, pensive and scared. The scene then cuts to her in a morgue, hesitantly approaching an open casket and then back to the subway and then back again. We eventually learn that her husband is dead, but we also see him meet her in the subway, so we're not quite sure which reality to believe.
Schwentke and company purposefully populate their film with many such moments of misdirection and red herrings, all of which are all too apparent if one's had the misfortune of seeing the trailer for the film that, in usual standard, gives away too much of the plot and its surprises.
Armed with such superficial knowledge of what was going to transpire eventually, I paid close attention to every nuance from camera angles, dialogue and even make-up and lighting on a crucial character. It's somewhat like trying to solve a mystery before such an event really occurs or develops meaning it will be fun for some who decide to play along. Then again, it might be boring for those already in the know regarding the basic premise and related big developments.
And all of those bits of potential clues and/or misdirection occur as Kyle boards a plane -- which she partially helped engineer, all the better to give her insight into what to do later on -- with her young daughter for a transatlantic flight back to the U.S. After dozing off, she wakes up to find her daughter missing and then the "fun" begins.
Following an increasingly panicked and unsuccessful search of the publicly accessible parts of the plane, she's told her daughter was never onboard. More such unnerving updates then follow -- I won't go into detail so as to keep whatever surprise developments, if any are left, intact -- that soon usher in the above psychological syndrome.
Our questions then follow suit, and despite having seen the daughter on the plane with her, we know that some films and filmmakers like to play with viewers, sometimes showing them things that only exist in the mind of the protagonist. Thus, as Kyle strains to hold on to the belief that she's sane and there's some mounting conspiracy surrounding her, we wonder if she's right or perhaps she's losing it.
With the purposefully unclear opening and armed with the knowledge of how other such films have played out -- most notably of recent "The Forgotten" where Julianne Moore plays a mother who's told her daughter never existed despite her belief that she did -- we question what we've seen and whether the purported daughter is alive or dead, a figment of her mom's grief-riddled imagination or whether the mom is really the one who's dead, etc. The possibilities are endless.
For a while, the cast and crew manage to keep us on our toes as we try to figure out the truth, and much of that success lies squarely on the shoulders of Foster. Following up her defensive mother role in "Panic Room," the veteran actress creates an engaging if damaged character. Bringing far more to the part than one imagines was written for it, Foster gets us to care about her and her quest for her daughter, whether she be real or imagined. And with a massive if fictitious airliner as the setting for her emotional rollercoaster, we hold on for all of the related ups, downs and unexpected sharp turns.
Unfortunately -- and you had to know that was coming -- the filmmakers have to provide an explanation. Since one obvious option obviously wouldn't sit well with most mainstream viewers (particularly since it's one of the main ones that we expect not long after the premise is revealed), they had to go the other route, but the chosen detail isn't particularly satisfying. It's hard to critique this without giving away the particulars, but let's just say one character's earlier behavior -- previously believed to be just another red herring -- is too obvious and the developments following the revelation are a bit too unbelievable.
Of course, it's all just designed to ratchet up the already built-up suspense, and to a degree that works (much as was the case in "Red Eye" that got better once everyone was back on terra firma). I suppose if you can just go along for the ride without really thinking about the explanations and what's been revealed and you like suspense/thrillers, you might enjoy this one. For me, once the revelations were out there, I was a bit distracted trying to figure out if they stand up to scrutiny (some do, but only with a heaping dose of some cut slack).
Considering that they're designed as doubtful witnesses and/or red herring characters, the supporting performances are decent. Peter Sarsgaard ("The Skeleton Key, "Shattered Glass") plays an air marshal who seems quite suspicious of the main character's allegations; Sean Bean ("The Island," "National Treasure") thankfully gets to play a good guy (or so we're led to believe) rather than the usual villain; Kate Beahan ("The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course," "Chopper") and Erika Christensen ("The Upside of Anger," "Traffic") play some of the flight attendants caught in the middle of the emotional melee, while Marlene Lawston (making her debut) plays the daughter who, natch, is MIA for much of the film.
This is really Foster's vehicle to fly, however, and she does a decent job of piloting the viewer along a path of uncertainty. Decent and taut for a while until the necessary and explanatory revelation hits the film like some nasty turbulence, "Flightplan" zips along at a fast clip, but doesn't exactly soar as high as it should. That is, unless all of those viewing the film with you unanimously agree that it's perfect, and that it wasn't Jodie Foster but rather Carrot Top playing the distraught mom. And if you believe that, it certainly will be a psychological phenomenon.